Leahy's legacy: Work in progress

Saturday May 4, 2013

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Vermont Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy, during a recent April afternoon, sat down softly on the bright red seat of an open-air car on the U.S. Capitol subway system. It shuttled him from the basement of the Russell Senate Office Building to the Capitol.

The subterranean surroundings recalled to mind his first days as a U.S. senator.

Leahy first strode into Washington in 1975, a freshman senator who successfully rode an anti-Republican wave that followed Nixon's resignation. He was assigned a basement office without windows. It would be dark when he arrived in the morning and dark when he departed at night.

"It got squirrelly," said the 73-year-old Leahy, who these days commands several offices, 61 staff members and nearly $4.3 million to run it all.

38 years of experience

With 38 years of experience under his belt, Leahy is no stranger to political gamesmanship and bright lights. He has had his share of ups and downs in the nation's capital. But the lights have never before shone as bright for Leahy as they do now.

As chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Leahy, in recent months, has been tasked with shepherding controversial legislation on gun control and immigration reform through his committee and on to the Senate floor. In a town accustomed to nasty, partisan fights over even the most mundane issues, Leahy's responsibility seems impossible.

Gun control legislation featuring expanded background checks supported by 90 percent of Americans, according to polls, failed to make it through the Senate last month, the victim of yet another filibuster requiring a supermajority, 60-vote tally to advance.

Meanwhile, Leahy is facing an immigration showdown head-on with a sense of optimism that would likely be seen as naive if not for his wealth of experience.

On top of all that, Vermont's senior senator was elevated in December to the largely ceremonial post of Senate President pro tempore following the death of Hawaii Sen. Daniel Inouye. That post, reserved for the most senior member of the chamber, makes Leahy third in the presidential line of succession, behind the vice president and the speaker of the House.

It's a lofty place to be these days for the man from Montpelier, now churning toward the end of a prolific legislative career that has lasted more than half his life.

On two recent, consecutive days in April, Leahy occupied the center chair of a hearing room in the Hart Senate Office Building, a wall of white marble behind him with the seal of the Senate affixed. This is where Leahy seems most at home -- the king of his castle.

He began the morning's immigration hearing by warning opponents, in his raspy voice, not to use the still-fresh Boston Marathon bombing as a reason to delay or derail the legislation. Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the ranking Republican on the committee, pushed back gently, but firmly.

Minutes later Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York echoed Leahy's sentiment.

That, apparently, was too much for Grassley.

"I never said that!" Grassley shouted back, twice -- decorum lost, but quickly restored.

The following day, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano appeared before the committee to testify on the immigration bill crafted by the bipartisan "Gang of Eight." But much of her two hours with the committee was devoted to the bombing and the Tsarnaev brothers accused of carrying out the attack.

If immigration reform was a tall task before, a terrorist attack on American soil in a major American city is now making it that much more difficult.

A recent profile in the New York Times noted the national attention gun control and immigration has directed toward Leahy. It could even define his "legacy," the Times' piece suggested.

Leahy's staff, and the senator himself, bristle at the suggestion that the past few "whirlwind" months will define his career. He has a lengthy list of legislative accomplishments to his name, even if most are not "sexy," said one of Leahy's longtime staffers.

The controversial nature of gun control and immigration and the difficulty of steering any legislation through the Senate -- let alone comprehensive reform bills on hot-button issues -- allows less flashy issues to be obscured. It can overshadow solid accomplishments, Leahy said.

"I think it's sometimes easy for people to do that," Leahy said. "The fact is, I have hundreds of issues going on."

During an interview inside his suite at the Russell Senate Office Building, Leahy ticked off legislation he is most proud of. The foundation of his work, and what his legacy may perhaps come to be defined as, includes many issues: humanitarian aid, human rights, civil liberties and agriculture, to name some.

There is the Patrick J. Leahy War Victims Fund, which provides artificial limbs for war victims. And the Leahy Law, which bans U.S. military assistance to foreign militaries that violate human rights.

"I had the Pentagon against me and so many others against me. I've had secretaries of state say no, but they've come around to my thinking," Leahy said.

He has sought to maintain a balance between law enforcement needs and civil liberties, securing checks on the Patriot Act and warrantless wiretaps.

There are numerous agricultural programs created by Leahy that have benefited Vermont and other rural states, including the Organic Standards and Labeling Program. Organic farming is now the fastest growing sector in American agriculture.

With hundreds of bills bearing his mark, Leahy is refusing to let any one issue define him.

"I've probably passed more legislation than virtually any other senator during that time, but I don't pick out any one thing," he said. "I don't go and say, ‘This is my number one achievement.' I think there's a lot of achievements."

Of course, he is keenly aware of his own accomplishments, and recognizes that the laws he has sponsored and passed have mostly flown well below the radar. He said that doesn't concern him.

"I rarely call press conferences and say, ‘Look at the issue I have.' I'm sure if we get immigration through there will be 20 people that run for the microphones, and I have no problem with that. I just want to get it done," he said. "Some people feel they've got to be on the Sunday talk shows and before the cameras praising everything they've done. I just don't do that. As a result, I find it easier to get Democrats and Republicans to support what I've done."

Still, Leahy is adept at communicating exactly what role he has played on important issues. He may not favor standing before a podium, but he rarely shies away from a gaggle of reporters that lie in wait to pepper him with questions.

Emerging from an immigration hearing late last month, Leahy encountered such a group. A CNN microphone was thrust in front of him and portable lights clicked on as cameras rolled. Just what is Leahy's take on the Obama administration's decision to treat a Boston bombing suspect in civil court rather than as an enemy combatant, they inquired?

A well-known Batman fanatic, Leahy echoed lines from his cameo in "The Dark Knight Rises," declaring to cable news -- and America -- that New Englanders are unafraid of terrorists.

In the movie, Leahy, a guest at a party, confronts the late Heath Ledger who played the role of the Joker: "We're not intimidated by thugs like you," he proclaims, as the Joker accosts him.

Inside his office, Leahy casually mentioned exactly how he has shaped the immigration legislation in his committee. The Gang of Eight met with him at his pro tem's office, with its views of the National Mall and Washington Monument. There they "worked a great deal behind the scenes" on the compromise bill.

"I've been delighted to have the Gang of Eight go on Sunday programs and talk about what they're doing, but in between, they've been meeting quietly with me," he said.

Leahy often mentions his efforts to reach across the aisle and work with Republican colleagues. It's impossible to get anywhere in the Senate these days without doing so, he said.

GOP colleagues say Leahy can be bitterly partisan when the moment -- and the Democratic Party -- demands it. But they also say his overtures are genuine.

"Although people would say that he's a liberal Democrat and I'm a conservative Republican, we do have issues we agree on that we manifest mainly through the appropriations process," said Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama. "He is a liberal Democrat, for the most part."

The Judiciary Committee chairmanship comes with natural partisan responsibilities, Kansas Republican Sen. Pat Roberts said. Judicial nominees, including Supreme Court justices, appear before the committee. There is a natural partisan divide, no matter which party controls the White House and Senate.

"He gets thrown into that mix and obviously he has an obligation to the administration to move as many appointments as he can. The other side wants to make sure that they are adhering to their principals," Roberts said.

Roberts, who was elected in 1996, said he and Leahy -- and their wives -- have grown to know each other well on congressional delegation working trips. It's how senators get to know each other "above and beyond their floor presence and their committee presence," he said.

Roberts said Leahy has earned his respect. Despite what are typically opposing viewpoints, the two have maintained a friendship, much of it based on humor.

"He is pretty funny, but I hate to put that in print," Roberts offered. "We pull a few practical jokes on each other, but they will remain classified."

Simply put, Leahy, Roberts said, is a man that he "can go to and confide in."

"In today's Washington and today's Senate that's pretty rare," he said.

When it comes to the Senate, Leahy employs old-school tactics. After the 2014 mid-term election, more than half of the Senate will be in their first term. That makes Leahy, who arrived at the age of 34, part of the old guard, from a different era.

Leahy is "an institutionalist" who takes time to school his new colleagues on the rich history and traditions of the chamber, said Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee.

"He can be a pretty strong partisan sometimes, but I think, now, partly because of his position as pro tem, he wants to make sure that the institution functions properly," Alexander said.

No one can work the arcane methods of the Senate better than Leahy, according to Roberts.

"I think his knowledge of the Senate, his knowledge of the Senate procedures and the Senate process, is second to none," he said.

In fact, Leahy has developed a reputation of holding hostage certain legislation to ensure he gets what he wants.

"He is a scoundrel. He will come in at the 11th hour, the 59th minute, and he will not let you know what he wants, and say, ‘This is what I want for my people in Vermont,'" Roberts said. "Probably, you better go to Pat first and see what he wants."

On the way to his ceremonial office in the Capitol, Leahy is flanked by a handful of plain-clothed Capitol Police guards. At the elevator they push the button. When the car arrives and the doors open, they peek inside. It's empty, and everyone can enter.

As part of the presidential line of succession, security has become a part of life for Leahy and his wife, Marcelle. It's not something they particularly enjoy, however, Leahy said. It's his second time with his own detail, the first a brief stint after his office was among the places to receive an anthrax-filled letter in a 2001 attack that killed five people.

"The only other time I've had security is when somebody tried to kill me with the anthrax letter. I originally had declined it and they said, ‘Well, you don't get a choice in the matter,'" Leahy said.

In a capital overflowing with egos, status is a hot commodity. With sleek, black SUVs and a security detail at his service, coupled with a Capitol office with a view, Leahy's status has certainly been elevated in recent months. But, he said, he is trying to maintain his humble Vermont roots.

Arriving at his office through the Capitol's darkened, ornamented halls, Leahy reached out to turn the doorknob. Locked. He stole a quick glance at his detail before fishing around inside his pocket for a key. A moment later the door swung open and he pointed out his fireplace.

An avid photographer, Leahy noted that he still needs to hang up his pictures. With access to rare vantage points from high-profile events, the senator has an impressive collection of photographs. Some have appeared in national publications.

However, it's a picture taken by his son-in-law, a professional photographer, of Obama hugging a young girl, that he holds up and describes as the one he most looks forward to hanging. Scattered about are pictures of family.

"Some senators have pictures up of the 25 most famous people they've met. I have 25 pictures of my grandchildren," Leahy said.

One never has to wait long for a mention of Marcelle, Leahy's wife of more than 50 years. No matter the subject, he nearly always brings her into the conversation. Family is big for Leahy. The man seen stalking the halls of Congress or commanding the hearing room is not the same family man.

"I'm different," he said.

The couple averages about 10 days each month in Vermont at their farmhouse in Middlesex. The rest of their time is largely spent at a home in McLean, Va., near CIA headquarters.

In Vermont, home is down a dirt road, as Leahy is wont to tell anyone who will listen.

"There's a picture of it right up there," he said, pointing it out inside his office.

"My parents had it for a weekend place, uninsulated and no central heating at that time. We bought it from them and rebuilt it. We spent part of our honeymoon there 50 years ago," Leahy said. "To me, that's the most peaceful place in the world. Miles of old logging trails that we hike or snowshoe on."

Leahy describes a very low-key existence outside of Washington. "A lot of times Marcelle will be sitting at one end of the couch and I'll be sitting at the other and we've each got a book," he said.

At the farmhouse, he likes to shoot. "Occasionally, and this is a non-(politically correct) thing, I do go target shooting."

Despite one bad eye, Leahy is still a ringer. "I'm a very good shot," he said, recounting how he once outshot some of the military's best shooters.

The couple do their own grocery shopping. In Vermont it takes three times as long as they chat with friends and constituents.

"Marcelle gets a kick out of that," Leahy said.

At times they patronize "very modest restaurants." The trappings of the office can be great, but Leahy said he avoids many of the glitzy events that others crave. "We've just never cared. We're just not made out that way," he said.

"Some of these big formal dinners where they're going to have all kinds of food and wines and it's sort of a must-do to show up, we'll go to the reception. Come in one door for the reception and and go right out the other door. Half an hour later we'll be at home, chinos and a sweatshirt and a movie," Leahy said.

Perhaps it is a quiet life outside of Washington they desire. But Leahy does enjoy discussing his proximity to power, and the people who wield it. He has become notorious over the years for his frequent name-dropping and casual references to meetings or calls with important people.

Leahy proudly described one thing he has saved from President Obama as a memento: a voicemail.

"Pat it's Barack. Obama. Would you call me back on my private line?"

"I called back and I said, ‘How many Barack's do you think I know?'" Leahy said. "We have that kind of relationship."

In fact, Leahy said Obama is "one of the few who still, today, meet with him just one-on-one with no staff around."

"He knows that when I have one of those meetings I don't run off and have a press conference and say, ‘The president told me this.'"

Several times over the course of two days Leahy recounted a meeting with Obama in which they discussed the legislation on gun control and immigration. The president joked that he was trying to keep the senator busy to keep him out of Marcelle's hair, as the story goes.

With guns and immigration, Leahy is busier than ever. It's a path he chose for himself, and one he is enjoying. Sen. Inouye's death, which elevated Leahy into leadership, also opened the highly-coveted chairmanship of the Appropriations Committee. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid offered the post to Leahy, who was already a senior member of the committee.

The senator "honestly wrestled" with that decision, according to staff. Give up the high-profile but challenging issues to come in Judiciary, or have full control over the country's purse strings?

Leahy, the elected state's attorney in Chittenden County before becoming a senator, shocked many when he passed up the job most senators dream of.

"He loves the Judiciary Committee. He's the first one I can remember in a long, long time to turn down the opportunity to be chairman of the Appropriations Committee," Alexander said.

Leahy had his reasons, even though some people were "horrified." At the top was the ability to continue looking out for Vermont on Appropriations, given his seniority.

"As a senior member of Appropriations I can protect Vermont. As chairman of Judiciary, I can protect the Constitution," he said. "If I can be remembered for those two things, I'm a very happy man. When I leave the Senate I want to be able to say that -- I protected Vermont and I protected the Constitution."

At 73, questions about Leahy's future are natural. His speech, often strained and wandering, leaves many with the impression that he's lost a step. It's a mix of chronic laryngitis, asthma and allergies, his office said. He still moves spryly around the halls of Congress, often leading his entourage of staff, guards and hangers-on.

Does he feel -- physically and mentally -- up to the task of another six years?

Leahy responded with a snippet from his recent vacation in Tortola, the largest of the British Virgin Islands.

"A couple weeks ago I was down about 85, 90 feet under the water, perhaps foolishly, chasing the largest barracuda I've ever seen. I realized I wasn't fast enough to catch it. Marcelle's comment was, ‘That's like a dog chasing a car. Be glad you don't catch it,'" he said. "I try to stay in pretty good shape."

In his first term, which he secured with just under 50 percent of the vote, Leahy said he constantly thought of re-election. These days he has a firm rule -- decide about one year out from the election. So whether Leahy intends to run again is not up for discussion -- yet.

"If I run again I'll win. I don't say that to brag but I will do all the appropriate things and win," he said.

He won't handpick a successor. Leahy said his own Republican predecessor, the well-respected George Aiken, who himself served for 34 years, tried to do just that.

"I think he was unhappy with me when it didn't work out," Leahy said.

The process will play out, likely with some jockeying, for a seat that has been held by just two people for more than 70 years.

"We have some excellent people, but they may not want to wait another 10 or 16 years," Leahy said, a hint, perhaps, that Leahy, already the longest serving senator in Vermont's history, intends to hang around in Washington as long as he can.

Look for a decision on his future in 2015.

"I love the Senate. If I ever had a day ... and I consider it such a privilege that Vermonters let me be there ... but if I ever had a day when I said, ‘I don't like this,' I'd walk away," Leahy said.

Contact Neal P. Goswami at ngoswami@benningtonbanner.com, or follow on Twitter: @nealgoswami


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