Vermont’s venerable Patrick Leahy, who has toiled in the U.S. Senate for 38 years and recently was appointed to the largely ceremonial post of president pro tempore — that puts him third in line for the presidency — has seldom sought the national spotlight that will surely be trained on him now as the Senate begins its highly charged debate over immigration reform.
In fact, the spotlight is already trained on Leahy. In a front page article in Friday’s New York Times, the senator’s profile was examined in detail.
“Over nearly four decades, Mr. Leahy has compiled an extensive résumé of workmanlike accomplishments, lauded but little known beyond the immediate beneficiaries: the Patrick Leahy War Victims Fund, the Leahy Law that controls American military assistance to governments with questionable human rights records, patent law, privacy protections, organic food labeling and agricultural conservation programs,” the article noted.
Leahy concedes these achievements may be important, but he told the Times reporter they’re “not the sort carved into marble in the Capitol.”
But this year Leahy, as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, had the responsibility of guiding the first major gun control legislation since 1994. That, of course, turned out badly for those senators who favored stricter rules on gun ownership, even though it appears the proposed reforms are favored by a large majority of Americans.
Next he must manage the most comprehensive rewriting of American immigration law since the days of Ronald Reagan. And that’s a task he obviously coveted, because to keep it he had to turn down the more prestigious chairmanship of the Senate Appropriations Committee. That’s a move that astonished many of his Senate colleagues.
Leahy told the Times he met President Obama in the Oval Office on Feb. 4 and listed the tasks that he saw facing him, and the nation, in the early stages of the president’s second term: the Violence Against Women Act, gun safety legislation, immigration and a possible Supreme Court confirmation fight.
“Anything else you want to throw my way?” Leahy said he asked Obama. “He said: ‘I know you get bored. I don’t want you to get bored.’”
The Times portrayed Leahy as “prickly and quick-tempered” and said that while he has jealously guarded the jurisdiction of his committee, he also has permitted lengthy bipartisan negotiations to take place.
“That tolerance, however, has come with a warning: ‘A day will come when we will vote on it in the Judiciary Committee, we will vote up or down and I will not have something come out of there that I will not vote for,” the article continued. “I will have the final say.”
The Times quoted John D. Podesta, a former senior aide to Leahy who later became Presaident Bill Clinton’s chief of staff, as saying Leahy does not fit neatly in with “epic Democratic figures like Edward M. Kennedy and Robert Byrd, who saw their lengthy tenures in the Senate as opportunities to shape society through ‘massive social legislation’ and permanent stamps on the institution itself.”
The article describes Leahy as “the small-state product of immigrant grandparents and the son of a printer” who has been more skeptical of governmental power while focusing his energies on privacy protections and criminal justice.
Leahy has his own ideas about the personal gratification he gets from his Washington job.
“I’m excited each time I walk into the Judiciary Committee,” he told the Times. “I want to be excited about going to work. I know that might sound silly.”
It surely doesn’t sound silly to Vermont’s voters.
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