WASHINGTON - Rep. Rick Lazio is a man in the middle.

The revolution that gave Republicans control of Congress for the first time in generations packed the House Banking Committee with 17 freshmen.

As a second-termer, the New York Republican has emerged as a bridge between the new blood and the veterans on the committee.

"I think I got here recently enough that I can relate with the freshmen and their experience," Rep. Lazio said during a recent interview. "At the same time, I've had good relationships with the older members, and I think I have an excellent relationship with Chairman Jim Leach."

Rep. Lazio chairs the panel's subcommittee on housing and community opportunity. He also is one of 10 deputy whips, the lawmakers who tally votes the party can count on for particular bills.

Rep. Robert Ehrlich, a banking committee freshman, agreed that Rep. Lazio spans the gap to the old guard.

"He's young, but he's been there, so he's well versed in the issues," said the Maryland Republican. "That leads him to be the perfect conduit from the freshmen to the committee leadership. He's very bright, very accessible - the kind of guy that any freshman would look to."

Rep. Lazio's office is across the hall from Rep. Ehrlich's digs in the Cannon House Office Building. The first-termer said he often drops by to chat with Rep. Lazio about issues concerning the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

"HUD and HUD-related matters have been a major issue in my district, and I look to him for guidance on what to do," Rep. Ehrlich said.

HUD and publicly assisted housing programs have become targets of the Republican budget ax. Rep. Lazio does not support legislation to abolish the department.

The November elections that put Rep. Lazio in the challenging and often difficult position of revamping HUD were full of surprises for the congressman.

Rep. Lazio realized soon after the Republican landslide that he was in line to head a subcommittee. However, he didn't know until early this year that he was going to take the helm of the housing panel.

Rep. Lazio's colleagues weren't exactly jealous when he was handed the chairmanship.

"The other members would pat me on the back and say, 'We feel sorry for you, because there are some tremendous problems involved with this area,'" Rep. Lazio said.

"It requires a futuristic sense of vision, and it gets stressful trying to define that vision," he added. "This doesn't always make me happy, but it can be very satisfying."

Partly because of his work on housing issues, Rep. Lazio has come to view the Community Reinvestment Act as an important tool that has "done a lot of good" revitalizing ailing neighborhoods.

Some of the lawmaker's GOP colleagues on House Banking have criticized the CRA as being too burdensome on banks. The rule revisions instituted by federal regulators last week may help lift some of the 1977 law's weight off banks. Still, some Republicans are calling for a repeal of the CRA.

Rep. Lazio said the act is necessary. While he agrees compliance should be simplified, he said that institutions in his Long Island district are making money off CRA loans.

"In underserved areas, CRA really makes a tangible difference," Rep. Lazio said. "We can improve our oversight, we can streamline exams, we can reduce some regulations and document requirements, but overall, the major thrust must be preserved."

Rep. Lazio's arrival in Congress in 1992 followed a four-year stint as chairman of the seniors and veterans committee in the Suffolk County Legislature. Prior to that, he worked as a prosecutor with the Suffolk district attorney's office.

The lawmaker received a bachelor of arts in political science at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and earned his law degree from American University in Washington.

As a deputy whip, Rep. Lazio spans another gap in the House - the one that exists between Republican leaders like Speaker Newt Gingrich and GOP members.

His job requires him to meet with the House leadership and help count votes, or ascertain before a bill moves to the House floor how Republican members will vote.

One thing he has learned the hard way from the new House leadership - especially from Speaker Gingrich - is how much work it takes to complete a huge legislative package like the GOP's "Contract with America" in under 100 days.

While Rep. Lazio appears even younger than 37, he said his looks belie the sheer exhaustion he feels from countless hours of working on the Republican manifesto.

"I certainly don't feel any younger than 37 - I think Newt has been trying to make everyone else's hair as white as his."

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