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Fact Checking Leslie Byrne

With apologies to Michael Dobbs, Capitol Briefing feels the sudden urge to do some fact checking after reading this Associated Press story about tomorrow's primary in Virginia's 11th congressional district, where Rep. Tom Davis (R) is retiring after seven terms.

Leslie Byrne
Former congresswoman Leslie Byrne is hoping for a return trip to the U.S. House. (Tracy Woodward / The Washington Post)

Ex-Rep. Leslie Byrne and Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerry Connolly are slugging it out for the Democratic nomination. The AP story notes that Byrne is arguing that her past service in the House (she served one term in 1993-1994) gives her a leg up, since she will regain her old seniority if she wins in November. "I am starting out as a sophomore," Byrne said.

Byrne has made similar claims before on the campaign trail, and the point has been repeated by her supporters in blog posts like this one and this one.

But is her claim true? Would she really be a "sophomore" on the first day of the 111th Congress? Right now, the short answer is no. Though that could change.

Just about every election cycle, a handful of former House members attempt to make return engagements. (Last Tuesday, ex-Rep. Doug Ose lost such a bid in the GOP primary in California's 4th District). But neither party automatically guarantees that such returning members will get their old committee assignments back, or that they won't be considered freshmen again.

As one Democrat put it to Capitol Briefing's alma mater, Roll Call (sub req'd): "While seniority can help former Members in the committee process, it is up to the discretion of the Democratic Steering Committee to determine committee assignments and seniority."

For example, Rep. Cynthia McKinney (Ga.) lost in the Democratic primary in 2002 but regained her seat in 2004. When she came back, she was able to return to the Armed Services Committee, but had to start at the bottom of the seniority ladder. She lost in the primary again in 2006.

That means Democratic leaders CAN choose to take a former member's past service into account, and they can even restore a former lawmaker's full seniority (i.e. officially calling Byrne a sophomore) if they choose to do so. But there is no evidence that Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has already made such a promise to Byrne, especially since Byrne is in a competitive primary with Connolly and the leadership is officially neutral.

Asked whether Byrne has gotten any specific promises about seniority from the Democratic leadership, Byrne campaign spokesman Joe Fox said, "I don't know the answer to that."

Putting aside whether Byrne would, as she says, officially be a sophomore next year, Fox said she "really has been talking about committee assignments." In her previous term, Byrne served on what are now the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and the Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Both those panels do work important to Northern Virginia. "She'd have an advantage in getting those committee assignments back" over the other candidates in the race, Fox said.

On one hand, if Byrne wins the nomination tomorrow, Pelosi and other leaders may well make some public promises about seniority and committee assignments in order to boost her chances against businessman Keith Fimian (R) in what will likely be a competitive general election race. But if Connolly wins the primary, Democratic leaders could just as easily pledge that he'll get prime committee seats (albeit without any extra seniority). And GOP leaders could do the same for Fimian.

The bottom line is that Byrne could turn out to be right that she'd return to Congress as a sophomore. But she hasn't portrayed it as a possibility or a prediction; she's stated it as a fact. And it's not. Capitol Briefing will leave it to others to dole out the requisite number of Pinocchios.

By Ben Pershing  |  June 9, 2008; 5:12 PM ET
Categories:  2008 Campaign , Dem. Leaders  
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