BENNINGTON -- Making a public visit to Bennington on Thursday for the first time in years, Sen. Patrick Leahy held a discussion of more than an hour with four members of the Banner staff at the Brown Cow Cafe.
Vermont's -- and the nation's -- senior senator ate a sandwich while fielding questions on state and national issues. Leahy's asides ranged from his family to the pollution and traffic in China and Vietnam to a book he recently read about Ethan Allen to his hobby of photography.
Leahy, 74, has been in the U.S. Senate since 1974, making him the longest-serving member. He is president pro tempore of the Senate, meaning that he is third in line in succession to the presidency, behind Speaker of the House John Boehner.
A handful of local people stopped and spoke to the senator. "A nice thing about being home, you run into everybody you know," Leahy said.
Leahy is chairman of the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee, so the unrest over a recent police shooting of a young black man in Ferguson, Mo., and apparent police over-reaction to protests about it there provided a discussion topic.
"I talked to the attorney general this week a couple of times about it. I called him to tell him I was very happy to send the FBI in to investigate," Leahy said. "If the young woman who was a witness to it, who says she is a witness, her story is accurate, he was way beyond (the Treyvon Martin case) in being unjustified in shooting.
Addressing the question of militarization of police, Leahy said that as president pro tempore of the senate he has had to accept heightened security protection.
"I said, ‘no, I don't need it.' They said, ‘you don't get any choice in the matter, somebody's got to be in line with the nuclear codes if all hell breaks loose' and so on," Leahy said. "I understand that, but I look at the police who travel with me, how professional they are."
Wise policing uses "the least amount of pressure" to keep things calm, he said.
"I worry when I see these huge military vehicles coming in. Of course, they're giving away a lot of that now [from] the Iraq and Afghanistan wars... I worry especially if you're in a community where there are a lot of minorities, possibly where the minorities are majorities -- the more you have the heavily armored vehicles, and all the more isolation there is. Community policing is still a better thing."
He added, "I understand with the number of police officers shot you have a concern, but I'm afraid if we militarize it too much you put it (as) ‘us -- them,' and that's not good."
Asked about the situation with unaccompanied immigrant children from Central America, Leahy said that some people say it is terrible that the Obama administration is taking them in, at least temporarily, and placing them around the country.
"We passed a comprehensive immigration bill last year in the senate -- two-to-one margin, Republicans and Democrats -- you can't get a majority vote like that these days to say that the sun's going to rise in the East. And I worked, as chairman of the committee, I spent so many evenings, weekends I was supposed to be in Vermont, I stayed there meeting with Republicans and Democrats, (spent the) break together, passed it."
The senate's immigration bill had hundreds of hours of markups and voting, with all but one of 140 amendments passed with both Democratic and Republican votes.
"It could have easily passed the House, it would have taken a lot of the pressure off" (the current situation), Leahy said.
Though the bill would have passed the House with most Democratic and a significant number of Republican votes, Speaker Boehner wouldn't bring it up, due to tea party pressure, he said.
"My grandparents came to Vermont in the late 1800s from Italy. My great-great grandparents came in the early 1800s to Vermont from Ireland. I don't know if they'd even be able to get in up here," he said. "You have parents who say I've got a 12- or 13-year-old boy or girl that are going to be either shot, forced into a gang, raped -- or take a chance."
These children have been sent here from desperation, he said.
"I've had long talks with President Obama about it. There's things we can do -- we should have passed the Dream Act a long time ago," Leahy said. "Some factions are xenophobic, but we all come from immigrants."
Leahy said he thought the U.S. Supreme Court would uphold the Affordable Care Act in the face of the latest legal challenge that has made its way to the Washington, D.C., and Virginia circuit courts. This challenge hinges around some inexact language in the law regarding the federal and state health care exchanges.
Regarding problems with the ACA exchange in Vermont, Vermont Health Connect, "I try very hard not to try to tell the state what to do in the vain hope that they'll return the compliment, but I was surprised the amount of money they spent," Leahy said.
"Of course, the national rollout was badly done, but now it's working." Real problems with implementation also occurred when Medicare was started and later with Medicare Part B. There was even opposition to Social Security when it was enacted. "But they all came together," he said.
"Vermont is always picked as the first or second healthiest state in the nation, probably that's because everybody from birth to 18 has health care, and preventative health." Preventative healthcare costs a lot less than emergency care, he said.
As for single-payer health care nationally, "It's a long ways away, I wish we had it," Leahy said. "All three of us in the delegation would have supported that."
USA FREEDOM Act
Leahy seemed excited about the prospects for an updated and expanded version of the USA FREEDOM Act to pass. This legislation "would restore Americans' privacy rights by ending the government's dragnet collection of phone records and requiring greater oversight, transparency, and accountability with respect to domestic surveillance authorities," according to a press release on his senate website.
"There's a great chance for it," Leahy said.
The senator was in Vermont when President Obama called him about it few days ago. Officials just need to figure out how to get the bill done, according to Leahy.
"There's no question I've got support from the right to the left on this, and I think we have a good chance to pass it," Leahy said. "It's stronger than the house bill, and the house is actually quietly delighted. I think if we pass ours, they'll probably take it."
One factor helping push the bill along is that the CIA apparently lied to Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., "about them tapping into the Senate computers. It's just an unbelievable violation of separation of powers. She was rightly angry about that. I think we can do it. I think we have to do it."
He added, "The thing is, if you collect everything in some ways you have nothing."
Leahy spoke of the former head of the National Security Agency telling a senate hearing that they had stopped 54 terrorist attacks. Under questioning this number decreased to one, and this was done with help from the FBI.
Similarly, NSA officials would say they had "tight controls" on the information but Leahy would reply that these controls couldn't stop a a 29-year-old subcontractor -- Edward Snowden -- "from walking away with all of your secrets. So don't talk to me about your controls."
Keeping a majority
Among Democrats, there is some concern that the senate may switch from Democratic to Republican control during the mid-term election in November. Leahy did not offer a prediction but spoke of what a change might mean.
"I've been several times in the majority, several times in the minority. There's one thing I've always said that makes a big difference and is seniority. I'm the dean of the senate, that doesn't change no matter what happens," he said. "I'll be the most senior person. I prefer the majority, though.
"For example, the man who would become chairman of the Judiciary Committee opposed the Violence Against Women Act, opposed immigration reform, opposed a number of other things -- joined me on some things. Has not supported me on my attempts to rein in the NSA members, so it would be different."
Leahy did not mention his name but the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee is Charles Grassley of Iowa.
Similarly, if the parties change control of the Senate "the new chairman of the Environment and Public Works (Committee) says there's no such thing as global warming," Leahy said, without mentioning the name of Sen. David Vitter, of Louisiana, the ranking Republican on this committee.
Leahy's visit to Bennington County Thursday also included a tour of the Energizer plant in Bennington, a visit to the Battenkill Valley Health Center in Arlington, and a stop at the Hill Farm Inn in Sunderland. He will be taking some time to visit with family and to celebrate his 52nd anniversary to his wife, Marcelle, at their Middlesex home in the coming days.
Mark E. Rondeau can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @banner_religion