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Tag along for one of Sen. Patrick Leahy's final days in Congress

A photo of Sen. Patrick Leahy in a suit, walking with a cane through ornately painted hallways and along a tile floor, surrounded by security people and an office staffer.
Elodie Reed
/
Vermont Public
Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy is preparing to leave Capitol Hill and retire on Jan. 3. 2023. Here he walks to his Senate President Pro Tempore office, usually granted to the senior-most U.S. senator in the majority party of Congress.

It’s a Thursday in December, and the halls of Congress are pretty quiet. You’re just as likely to see a staffer carrying a Crock-pot to a holiday party as you are an elected official.

On the floor of the United States Senate, Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, aka the Senate President Pro Tempore, aka the person third in line to the presidency, gavels lawmakers into session. After eight terms in Congress, the 82-year-old is preparing to leave this institution.

As the current longest serving member of the U.S. Senate, it’s fair to say Leahy is an institution himself. He arrived here at 34 years old, and since then, he’s moved up in the world. Literally — from a windowless basement office in the Russell Senate Office Building to one on the fourth floor.

A photo of a person in the foreground holding a remote, with a TV in the background showing Sen. Patrick Leahy sitting in a leather chair with a blue curtain behind him.
Elodie Reed
/
Vermont Public
Sen. Patrick Leahy's deputy press secretary David Manitsky turns up the volume during C-SPAN's live broadcast of the U.S. Senate on Thursday, Dec. 8.

That’s where a smattering of staffers still work. They sit at desks in rooms connected by a long hallway.

The rooms are in various states of deconstruction. In one, nails poke from a bare wall where Leahy’s own photographs used to hang. In another, cardboard boxes stack up, ready to be shipped to Leahy’s archive at the University of Vermont. In a third are posters with images of Leahy in previous terms, made up specially for a farewell party.

A wall empty except for nails, above a desk with stacked photo frames and a dark computer monitor.
Elodie Reed
/
Vermont Public
The wall where Sen. Patrick Leahy's own photos used to hang in the Russell Senate Office Building, including what he calls his "conscience photo," a black-and-white portrait of a man he met in a refugee camp. "I have looked at it every single day, and I think, what am I doing to help people like that?" Leahy says.
The side of a person holding one of three green and yellow posters with images of Sen. Patrick Leahy from over time, in an office against some filing cabinets.
Elodie Reed
/
Vermont Public
For a recent farewell gathering, Sen. Patrick Leahy's staff made up posters with images from all eight of his terms in the U.S. Senate.

As Senate President Pro Tem, Leahy also has an office on the first floor of the U.S. Capitol. It’s situated in the Brumidi Corridors, which are hallways decorated with elaborate fresco paintings. The murals of cherubs, animals, plants and stars arc over the shiny, blue-and-tan tile floors.

Inside the office is a Christmas tree and a roaring fire. I sit down with Leahy to hear about his impending retirement, and what he’s going to miss: the people he’s served with, the classified briefings, the complexities of issues like agriculture, passing legislation. Not to mention this office — he has a clear view of the Washington Monument, and we sit beneath a giant, sparkling chandelier that he jokes about taking home with him.

A photo of two people, Sen. Patrick Leahy and a staffer, in suits in a large room with maroon drapes, a Christmas tree and a giant chandelier.
Elodie Reed
/
Vermont Public
Sen. Patrick Leahy speaks with a staffer in the Senate President Pro Tempore's office. Leahy jokes he wants to bring home the chandelier to the family's Middlesex tree farm: "If we put that in our old farmhouse, I think it's bigger than the farmhouse."

“But all of that is overshadowed by the fact that we’re looking forward to being back home and having our own schedule,” Leahy says.

I ask him what he imagines it will be like to wake up and not be a senator.

“I’ll say, ‘You mean, I don't have to be at that 7a.m. meeting?’” he says. “I can sit around in my pajamas and my cup of coffee, and watch the news? Go work out, and then whatever work I have to do, I do at my own leisure. You walk around with these things that get updated all day long, schedule cards” — he pulls out two small white cards from inside the breast of his suit jacket — “and you live by them.”

A photo of a long wooden desk with people sitting and standing behind it, with a white marble wall in the background and a United States Senate symbol. Sen. Patrick Leahy is standing, about to sit down.
Elodie Reed
/
Vermont Public
Sen. Patrick Leahy arrives a little late to the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday, Dec. 8.
A photo of Sen. Patrick Leahy leaning over and speaking into the ear of Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, who is smirking. They're surrounded by other people.
Elodie Reed
/
Vermont Public
Sen. Patrick Leahy has a quick word with Rhode Island Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a fellow Democrat, during a Senate Judiciary Committee executive business meeting.

For decades, Leahy’s days have been full of things like committee hearings, walking the long hallways beneath the Capitol, speaking with the press, attending ceremonies, flying back and forth to Vermont and abroad … all while wearing some combination of jacket, button down and tie. (These days, he’s also sporting a pair of comfy sneakers.)

But that’ll all be over soon, and then Leahy can trade in his power suit for a wetsuit — he says he’s really looking forward to scuba diving with his wife Marcelle. He shows me a photograph of the two of them from a previous trip.

“She's the one in pink,” he clarifies.

Two photos side-by-side, one underwater of two people in scuba gear, the second of Sen. Patrick Leahy at a desk in a suit.
Elodie Reed
/
Vermont Public
Sen. Patrick Leahy says he and his wife Marcelle love to scuba dive. He can recall one time when they saw a nurse shark. "So we get back in the boat, I said, 'Marcelle, you're a registered nurse, that's a nurse shark, they gave you a professional courtesy.' She said, 'No Patrick, that's a shark, you're a lawyer, do the math.'"

He does have to wait, though, until the hip he broke over the summer heals. After two surgeries and a 31-day-stay in the hospital, he returned to Congress in a wheelchair. Now he’s walking with a cane.

“They want my hip totally healed before, just because of the obvious motion,” Leahy says. “I said, ‘Well then hurry up and heal.’ Because we love doing that.”

A photo of Sen. Patrick Leahy stepping off a small subway car, carrying a binder and walking with a cane.
Elodie Reed
/
Vermont Public
After breaking his hip over the summer, Sen. Patrick Leahy initially returned to Congress in a wheelchair. He now walks with a cane, seen here as he moves between the Russell Senate Office Building and the U.S. Capitol.

Before he calls it quits, Leahy has one major piece of business left. Senate Republicans and Democrats have disagreed on the proportion of defense versus domestic spending in an omnibus bill to fund the government, funding which technically runs out on Friday.

“Now, we Democrats do agree with our Republican colleagues, that inflation threatens the national security,” Leahy said last week in a speech on the Senate floor. “We all agree on that. But non-defense programs face an equal threat and demand an equal response because of inflation.”

A painted portrait of Sen. Patrick Leahy, in a gold frame, with people in the foreground.
Elodie Reed
/
Vermont Public
A portrait of Sen. Patrick Leahy hangs in the Senate Agriculture Committee room, where he has pushed through policy like federal organic standards. After spending nearly half a century in the institution of U.S. Congress, it's fair to say Leahy is something of an institution himself.

On Tuesday, Leahy’s office announced he and other leaders have reached consensus on a framework agreed upon by both parties, as well as both the House and Senate.

In his floor speech last week, Leahy said he stayed the previous several weekends to be available for negotiations.

“‘Cause if we don't do it, we're going to have a continuing resolution at last year's level, with no adjustments for inflation,” he said. “And the real life consequences that entails.”

A photo of Sen. Patrick Leahy standing with Sen. Richard Shelby. Their torsos are in the foreground, and Leahy's upper half is looking back slightly into a mirror in the background.
Elodie Reed
/
Vermont Public
Sen. Patrick Leahy says he and his wife Marcelle want to have more time to reflect on all the things they've experienced. But before that, he has one job left: to pass an omnibus bill funding the government for this fiscal year. Leahy is the Senate Appropriations Committee Chair, and he's seen here speaking with Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby, the vice chair.
A photo of hands, which show wrinkles, a gold watch and a gold wedding band.
Elodie Reed
/
Vermont Public
Sen. Patrick Leahy says he's looking forward to waking up no longer a senator, and keeping his own schedule.

Whether or not the bill passes, by noontime on Jan. 3, it won’t be Leahy’s job any longer.

Then he says he and Marcelle need to sell their Virginia home of 45 years, finally clean out the basement there, and make their way back home to Vermont, where they’ll be moving into a Burlington apartment by the lake.

A silhouette of a man in a window, through which the Washington monument is visible.
Elodie Reed
/
Vermont Public
Sen. Patrick Leahy has just a few weeks left of being a member of Congress.

There they’ll have some time to reflect on where they’ve been for the past half century.

“The memories that we have, Marcelle and I are looking forward to time we can just slow down and say, ‘Oh, do you remember that? Oh, yes, we went — wasn't that fun?’ You know, we can speak in shorthand about these things. But now we can sit and relish them… And go scuba diving.”

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.

Elodie is a reporter and producer for Vermont Public. She previously worked as a multimedia journalist at the Concord Monitor, the St. Albans Messenger and the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript, and she's freelanced for The Atlantic, the Christian Science Monitor, the Berkshire Eagle and the Bennington Banner. In 2019, she earned her MFA in creative nonfiction writing from Southern New Hampshire University.
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