One last look back at Patrick Leahy's 48 years in the U.S. Senate
After serving 48 years in the U.S. Senate, Patrick Leahy will officially be stepping down today. Leahy will be succeeded by senator–elect Peter Welch.
Leahy started his first term in 1975, and was the first Democrat ever to serve in the U.S. Senate from Vermont.
Vermont Public’s senior political correspondent Bob Kinzel has covered Sen. Leahy for many of these years. He spoke with Morning Edition host Mitch Wertlieb about Leahy’s nearly five decades in the Senate. Their conversation below has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Mitch Wertlieb: In many ways, this feels like the end of an era in Vermont politics. Does it seem that way to you ?
Bob Kinzel: Mitch, it really does.
When he first ran for the Senate in 1974, Pat Leahy was not the favorite to win. Weeks before the election, polls showed him losing to Republican candidate Richard Mallory. Now he is the third-longest-serving senator in the history of the country. During his 48 years, he has cast more than 17,000 votes. He’s served under nine presidents.
This incredible longevity was made possible because he was just 34 years old when he was sworn into office in 1975. Think of all of the major events in U.S. political history that have happened in the past five decades. Pat Leahy was in the Senate this entire time. This is the end of an era.
It really is impossible to sum up his entire career in this short amount of time that we have here, but let’s look at some key moments.
What Leahy might feel is the most important vote he ever cast actually took place in his first year in office.
He was a member of the Armed Services Committee, and he voted to end funding for the war in Vietnam. He says it was a tough vote, because a majority of Vermonters still supported the war. But he says it was the right thing to do, regardless of the political consequences.
“We voted five times,” Leahy said. “Each time the vote to continue the war was defeated by one vote. I was proud to be that one vote.”
And Leahy says another key vote was his opposition to the Iraq War in 2002.
The Bush administration said the war was needed because it claimed that Saddam Hussein had “weapons of mass destruction.” But Leahy said he knew that claim wasn’t true:
“Unlike others, I actually read the intelligence,” Leahy said. “And I knew that they were not telling the truth about weapons of mass destruction. And I voted against that war, and I’m proud of that.”
Leahy describes both of these “anti–war” votes as “acts of conscience,” and he says that’s his major responsibility as a member of the Senate.
Serving on the Judiciary Committee
During his career, Sen. Leahy has been a key member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and in that position he has played an important role in reviewing Supreme Court Nominees.
Over the past 48 years, Leahy has been part of at least 18 confirmation hearings for the Supreme Court.
He says his general philosophy is to vote for a nominee if he feels the person is an independent thinker and doesn’t bring an agenda to the court. That’s why he voted for Chief Justice John Roberts in 2005.
But, sometimes he led the opposition to a candidate — as in the fall of 2018 with Brett Kavanaugh. There were allegations that Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted at least two women in high school and college. Leahy wanted a full investigation of these charges, but the committee didn’t agree to this request. He was frustrated and angry, and it led to this exchange with Kavanaugh:
Leahy: “In your yearbook you talked about drinking and sexual exploits, did you not?”
Kavanaugh: “Senator, let me take a step back and explain high school. I was number one in the class…”
Leahy: “And I thought only the Senate…
Kavanaugh: “No, no, no…I’m gonna talk about my high school…no, no! I’m gonna talk about my high school record if you’re gonna sit here and mock me.”
In his role on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Leahy was also a frequent critic of efforts by the U.S. government to thwart terrorism by spying on the American people.
He was very critical from about 2006 on. And it really came to a head when it was disclosed in 2013 that the federal government was tracking phone calls of millions of people as part of the War on Terror. Leahy was outraged by this situation.
“To what extent does this massive collection of data improve our national security. What cost to our privacy and free expression? If we pick up everything, do we actually have anything? This is not a partisan issue," Leahy said. "This is an American issue. This is an issue of saying, ‘We want to know what our government is doing and why’.”
During his career, Leahy played a leadership role across the world to ban the use of landmines. This was an incredibly passionate issue for him — and it’s one where the U.S. military fought him at every turn.
In the 1990s, Leahy was successful in passing bills that placed a short-term moratorium on the additional use of landmines by the United States. And he led an international effort to pass a world-wide treaty to ban the future use of landmines. But, he was very disappointed that he could not convince several former presidents to sign the treaty.
“That’s not the leadership I expect of my government,” Leahy said. “The Clinton, the George W. Bush and the Obama administration have not joined, and in not joining, they’ve isolated the United States on this issue. I ask what kind of message does this send the rest of the world in this lack of leadership? We ought to just sign it.”
Leahy was successful in passing a War Victims Fund, which provides financial assistance for people who have suffered serious injuries because of their exposure to landmines.
Another international issue that Leahy was very involved in was his strong opposition to the policies used at the military prison at Guantanamo Bay for people who were suspected of being terrorists.
It was part of the War On Terror — following the terrorist attacks against this country on Sept. 11, 2001. He was very concerned that people were being detained without a trial and were given virtually no legal rights.
“Countries that respect the rule of law and human rights do not lock away prisoners indefinitely without trial and without charge,” Leahy said. “We condemn those countries that do it. We should not authorize it in our own country.”
And to his dismay, the detention center is still open today. Over the years, almost 800 people were sent there and roughly 25 are still there today.
An all-time quote
A favorite all-time Leahy quote came during the debate over a balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1996. Leahy opposed the plan because he said if senators felt a budget was creating more debt — all they had to do was to vote "no" when the funding bill came to the floor.
He said they just needed to show some courage, like the cowardly lion in the Wizard of Oz.
"What makes the ‘hot’ in hot so hot? What makes the 'ape' in apricot? What has gut that I ain’t got? Courage," Leahy said. "Now, Mr. President, the cowardly lion finally got his courage. We ought to get a little.”
Now this is not a complete list at all of what Leahy has accomplished. There are many other things:
- The creation of a small state minimum for most budget bills — this has brought billions of dollars into the state of Vermont.
- His support for small dairy farms and his sponsorship of the organic food certification law.
- His fight for environmental protections for Lake Champlain.
- His support for the Violence Against Women Act.
- His efforts to preserve thousands of acres of wilderness in the state.
And that’s really just part of the list.
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