By Felicia Sonmez
Rep. Kathy Hochul (D-N.Y.) was sworn in Wednesday afternoon as the House's newest member, a little over one week after she bested state Assemblywoman Jane Corwin (R) and a third-party candidate in a race where House Republicans' proposal to overhaul Medicare took center stage.
In a brief interview before House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) administered the oath of office, Hochul said that she believed her election in New York's conservative-leaning 26th district sent two messages on Medicare: that the entitlement program does need to be reformed to address the country's soaring debt, but that the proposal in the House Republican budget is not the way to do it.
"I think it does send a message," Hochul said of her victory. "I think there's a message sent that we shouldn't be afraid to take on the issues of the day, which are to protect our seniors, but also to understand the compelling need -- that I know loud and clear from my constituents -- that we need to get our debt under control. So, I come into this with my eyes wide open. We've got some tough challenges here, but there's ways to do it."
As the White House and congressional leaders continue to work toward a comprehensive deficit-reduction plan, Hochul said that when it comes to addressing the national debt, entitlement reform, defense spending and tax increases should all be on the table.
"Part of my campaign was to talk about the need for entitlement reform, which means reform Medicare and get the underlying costs of health care under control," Hochul said. "I've said that from Day One. But everything's on the table; everything's on the table, and that's what I'm here to ensure happens."
Hochul's arrival in the House gives Democrats 193 seats to Republicans' 240, with two seats -- belonging to former Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.) and Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) -- currently vacant. Special elections for the seats vacated by Harman and Heller will take place in July and September, respectively.
While Hochul's victory has a negligible effect on the party balance in the lower chamber, it does mean that if Democrats are to retake the House in 2012, they will need to flip 24 seats, one fewer than before last week's special election.
It also gives Democrats a data point to use as they continue to make a campaign issue out of the House Republican budget plan, which they argue would "end Medicare as we know it" by changing it into a voucher program. Republicans have countered that their proposal would preserve Medicare by privatizing the program for future seniors. They argue that Democrats have not come forth with any proposal that would prevent Medicare from becoming insolvent after 2024.
Asked whether there's an issue on which she would disagree with most members of her party, Hochul pointed to the income threshold for the Bush-era tax cuts, which were renewed by Congress last December for an extra two years. Although the tax-cut package passed with bipartisan support, many Democrats opposed an extension of the cuts on income of $200,000 or more for individuals or $250,000 or more for families. Hochul said she would support a higher threshold.
"I would raise it to $500,000 or higher, because I've said that it's not fair that millionaires and billionaires continue to get tax breaks," Hochul said. "However, if the threshold's too low, you're going to hurt the small businesses on the main streets."
Hochul -- who was accompanied to Wednesday's swearing-in ceremony by her parents, husband, two children, sister, four brothers and 18 nieces and nephews -- also spoke about growing up in a large family and coming from humble beginnings.
"I learned at a very young age, to whom much is given, much is expected," Hochul said Wednesday. "My family started in a trailer, but we weren't starving. We were okay. I went to public high school and was privileged to be able to go to Syracuse University -- that was a big stretch for my parents to be able to afford that -- so I've always felt my entire life I have an obligation to give back."
Given the timing of her swearing-in -- which comes as Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) is rebuffing questions from reporters over a lewd photo that surfaced on his Twitter feed, and nearly four months after her predecessor, former Rep. Chris Lee (R-N.Y.), resigned in a scandal -- what did Hochul think about joining the New York delegation?
"I assure my voters they will have confidence in me that I will conduct myself with the utmost integrity," she replied. "I have a lot of respect for this institution. The people put me here, and I will never let them down."