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Leahy relishing rise to power
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Leahy relishing rise to power
December 10, 2006
By Darren M. Allen Vermont Press Bureau
MONTPELIER – Sen. Patrick Leahy is about to begin his 33rd year as the only Democrat to represent Vermont in the U.S. Senate, but it might as well be his first.
Even after a long day in the halls of Congress, Leahy couldn't contain his excitement over returning to work in a chamber dominated, for the fourth time in his career, by his party.
"I see the Senate getting back to where it's supposed to be – the conscience of the nation," Leahy said in a phone interview. "The nation has not been helped by being a rubber stamp."
Leahy, other Democrats and some stalwarts of the GOP have accused the Republican-controlled 109th Congress of being a rubber stamp for the president's agenda, ultimately allowing Bush to run afoul of the Constitution with impunity.
But even under these circumstances, the Vermont senator has commanded power and attention. And that's due in part to his longevity in office. Leahy, a former Chittenden County prosecutor, won the 1974 election at age 34 and became the youngest Vermonter and the only mem-ber of his party ever elected to the U.S. Senate. Over the years, he has been a member of the minority periodically, from 1981 to 1987, again from 1995 to 2001, then from 2003 until last week.
Leahy is seventh on the Senate's seniority list, and he is considered to be among the top 10 most influential people on Capitol Hill.
And he's about to become more powerful. When Congress meets next month, Leahy will – for the second time – become chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, where he will control the flow and tenor of hearings over matters ranging from federal judicial appointments to oversight of the FBI and the Justice Department.
He also will become chairman of the foreign operations subcommittee of the Appropriations Committee, a post from which he will have significant oversight over a slew of controversial national security issues.
And, in a committee assignment of particular interest to Vermonters, he will be the No. 2 Democrat on the Agriculture Committee, where he will be able to look out for the state's farmers, as well as steer conservation measures.
Through the appropriations and agriculture assignments, Leahy will continue to direct millions of dollars of federal money and contracts back home, as he has now for more than a decade.
And while serving his state's financial interests is a key component of the work Leahy – or any senator for that matter – does, it is his self-described role as overseer of the nation's civil liberties that he's most excited about.
Leahy hasn't officially laid out his agenda for the next two years, but anyone paying attention to last week's Judiciary Committee hearing on FBI oversight would be hard pressed to have missed where the senator is going.
"The recent revelation that the Bush administration, since 9/11, has been compiling secret dossiers on millions of unwitting, law-abiding Americans who travel across our borders, highlights the importance of congressional oversight," he said. "It is simply incredible that the administration is willing to share this sensitive information with foreign governments and even private employers, while refusing to allow U.S. citizens to see or challenge the so-called terror score that the government has assigned them based on their travel habits and schedules.
"This administration has gone to unprecedented lengths to hide its own activities from the public, while at the same time collecting and compiling unprecedented amounts of information about every citizen."
In a phone interview a day after the hearing, Leahy also said he had serious concerns about domestic eavesdropping, the interrogation of detainees and other "national security" activities conducted by the Bush administration.
"How far is this going to go?" Leahy said. "How many more ways are we going to be cross-checked? J. Edgar Hoover would be salivating to have this kind of power," he added, referring to the longtime former FBI director who compiled vast stores of information on millions of Americans.
"But none of this – none of this – is making us safer."
Leahy does not take national security lightly, but he said to force Americans to choose security over the loss of civil liberties is a false and unnecessary choice.
His position is shared by the American Civil Liberties Union.
"Leahy has been probably about the strongest voice for civil liberties in the Senate for a number of years, although that voice was certainly muted during the time the Democrats were the minority party in Congress," said Allen Gilbert, the executive director of the ACLU's Vermont office. "I think that Senator Leahy is different from a lot of civil liberties activists in Congress because he understands that protecting civil liberties leads to better government and better security for citizens.
"It's not always comfortable and it's not always convenient and it's not always popular, but Leahy gets it. He knows that civil liberties are not just window dressing or something nice to talk about on national holidays."
Not everyone agrees that the nation's recently instituted security measures violate civil liberties – the rights of privacy, equality, due process and, fundamentally, to be left alone. The president has defended his record on terrorism, and many conservative commentators have suggested that the additional measures employed by the administration have lead to a greater degree of safety.
"Since the Sept. 11 attacks, America is safer, but we are not yet safe," the president's National Strategy for Combating Terrorism concluded. "We have done much to degrade Al Qaida and its affiliates. …We have transformed our governmental institutions and framework to wage a generational struggle."
It is that institutional transformation that concerns Leahy. In short, he said, allowing a president of any party to do whatever he or she pleases with the consent of Congress is dangerous.
"We are in serious danger of becoming a government of men and not of laws," Leahy said. "And that is always bad."
In addition to restoring regular oversight over the Justice Department, Leahy will use the chairmanship of the Judiciary Committee to scrutinize President Bush's judicial nominees.
Not that the outgoing chairman – Leahy's friend of many years, Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Arlen Specter – routinely gave the president his way. In fact, Leahy has regularly praised Specter's screening of judicial nominees, and he, far more often than not, was consulted on nominations.
"Ideologues will not get through," Leahy said. "I don't want the federal judiciary to be an arm of the Republican Party or the Democratic Party. An independent court system is one of the greatest safeguards we have."
And it's been the only check on executive-branch power in recent years, at least according to Cheryl Hanna, a Vermont Law School professor and constitutional law scholar.
"It is important that the Senate approve judges who are moderate and respect constitutional principles on civil liberties," Hanna said. "Since Sept. 11, Congress and the president independently and together have taken actions that have curtailed civil liberties, and it has taken the Supreme Court to step in.
"The attitude about civil liberties in recent years has been undermined by the false dichotomy that we have to trade some liberty for security."
Leahy isn't shy about stating his opinions or being in the limelight. And it's because of his outspokenness on key issues that the Bush administration sees Leahy as an antagonist.
Two years ago, Vice President Dick Cheney lashed out at the senator, telling him to "f—- yourself."
Leahy never repeated the comment publicly, but many observers saw it as an illustration of just how frustrated the administration gets with the senior senator from Vermont.
The senator, for his part, seems to make a point of couching stinging remarks with a gentlemanly polity. Even when he savages the president's policy decisions, he does so with a smile and his trademark soft, gravely voice and piercing eyes.
As one political Web site put it recently, "Leahy's white hair and soft voice belie the tenaciousness with which he latches onto an issue or a witness, and doesn't let go. A former prosecutor, Leahy approaches issues with an organized and commanding knowledge of the facts."
And with a wry, Vermont sense of humor.
His first official act in the new Congress will be to escort the state's newly elected junior senator, Rep. Bernard Sanders, down the aisle to the well of the Senate, where he will be sworn in.
"When it comes to the vice president," Leahy said, "it's always better to be sworn in than to be sworn at."
Contact Darren Allen at firstname.lastname@example.org
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