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For Capitol Hill freshmen, sponsoring legislation can boost political fortunes

By Ben Pershing
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 10, 2010

When a popular federal tax credit for first-time home buyers was set to expire in June, the House and Senate sprang into action, approving a bill to extend the credit for three months to people with home sales already under contract. One of the lead sponsors of the measure -- which passed 409 to 5 -- was Rep. Frank M. Kratovil Jr. (D-Md.), a freshman whose committee assignments don't involve tax policy.

Similarly, Virginia Rep. Glenn Nye (D) got a bill passed last year that would launch a program to provide business advice to veterans. His Hampton Roads-based district -- which is high on Republican target lists -- has a huge military presence.

Nye was also the lead author, among 55 total sponsors, of a bill to help Israel acquire rocket-defense systems. It passed the House in May. And Nye has sponsored a half-dozen successful amendments to other bills, including provisions to help homeowners who bought toxic drywall made in China -- a hot-button issue.

Fellow Virginia Rep. Tom Perriello (D) got his name on top of a popular measure to revoke the health-insurance industry's antitrust exemption. The bill had 73 co-sponsors.

Their issues may be different, but Kratovil, Nye and Perriello have something in common -- all three Democrats were elected in 2008 and face competitive reelection races this year, which might help explain why their party leaders were happy to have them sponsor slam-dunk bills.

Giving vulnerable members the chance to put their names on popular legislation is standard practice on Capitol Hill, and one of the perks of being in power. At a news briefing before the home-buyer credit measure passed, a reporter asked House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) whether it would be helpful for Kratovil and a few other freshmen sponsors to be able to go back to their districts and take credit for the bill.

"Gee, I hope so," Hoyer said, prompting laughter in the room.

Freshmen lawmakers don't often get invited on "Meet the Press" or other high-profile media opportunities. They don't chair committees, and they're unlikely to be in the room when final deals are cut on big-ticket legislation. So they're particularly dependent on the largess of party leaders.

"It's very difficult for vulnerable freshmen to get visibility without the help of the leadership," said Ron Bonjean, a former aide to House and Senate Republican leaders who works as a lobbyist. "To help them back home, they're often given high-profile assignments and bills to champion."

Just a few months after taking office last year, freshman Rep. Mary Jo Kilroy (D-Ohio) was the lead sponsor of a resolution disapproving of the bonuses being paid to executives at insurance giant AIG. The role earned her some valuable media attention on an issue dominating the news at the time.

Kilroy said House Democratic leaders had gone out of their way to help her and other first-term members develop bills -- and get exposure.

"They're not old-school, which was, 'Freshmen should be seen and not heard,' " Kilroy said.

In addition to authoring stand-alone bills, vulnerable legislators are also frequently given the chance to offer amendments -- with C- SPAN cameras rolling -- to the bills of others. The party in the majority, via the Rules Committee, has wide latitude in deciding which amendments will come to a vote on the floor and which won't.

In May, for example, the House overwhelmingly passed a bill -- authored by second-term Rep. Heath Shuler (D-N.C.) -- to create a variety of programs to help small businesses, particularly those owned by veterans. Votes were allowed on the House floor on 10 amendments, eight of them sponsored by freshmen (including one by Kratovil that squeaked by on a 427 to 0 vote).

Veterans' issues have become a popular legislation subject. Freshman Rep. Harry Teague (D-N.M.) got an affirmative vote in March for his bill creating federal grants for energy companies to provide employee training to veterans.

Although House leaders can be generous, freshmen don't get everything handed to them on a platter, and Kratovil wasn't exactly new to the topic he and his co-authors addressed in June.

Kratovil teamed with freshman Rep. Travis Childers (D-Miss.) last September on a bill that would have extended the home-buyer credit through November 2010 -- which, coincidentally or not, is when the two lawmakers and their colleagues face reelection.

"This is definitely an issue he's been working hard on for a while," said Kratovil spokesman Kevin Lawlor, adding that after the bill's passage, "we can go home and say, 'Look, this is something we've done.' "

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