There’s little love lost between the Obama administration and conservative lawmakers like Rand Paul. But Sen. Patrick Leahy is convinced that partnering with people like Paul has helped him catch the ear of the administration on issues such as criminal sentencing and surveillance reforms.
In a lengthy interview Thursday, Leahy said Republican outreach has always been a part of his political strategy, but lately, the senior senator has found himself in cahoots with some of the upper chamber’s most conservative upstarts.
With Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, he found an island of common ground on immigration reform. He’s partnered with Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, on his effort to update the Electronic Communications Act (ECPA) and expedite the sunsets on NSA surveillance programs. And most recently, he’s shared the spotlight with Lee and Kentucky libertarian Paul, after Attorney General Eric Holder announced he wants to do away with mandatory minimum sentences for certain nonviolent drug offenses — a reform that falls in line with legislation they’ve advocated.
Finding commonalities isn’t easy — Leahy compared the process to assembling a jigsaw puzzle. “You sit there thinking about where the hell does this piece go, and then there’s a ‘Eureka’ moment.”
Doing policy-making in neutral territory helps, according to Leahy, and the digs bequeathed to him as pro tem — a posh office, complete with chandelier and fireplace — have served that purpose well, he said.
Leahy is a liberal Democrat; Lee, Paul and Rubio are some of the most prominent lawmakers of the Tea Party persuasion. But putting parties aside, what’s the dynamic like when the 73-year-old Leahy, the nation’s senior-most senator who’s held his seat since 1975, sits down with the likes of Lee or Paul or Rubio, who only entered the Senate in 2011, and whose average age is 43?
During Leahy’s first term, he said, a senior senator from the South pulled him aside and told him that seniority was the basis of Senate operations. Mimicking a Southern drawl, Leahy said the older lawmaker went on, “And boy, you ain’t got none.”
By his own account, Leahy has taken a more benevolent approach.
Leahy recalled inviting Rubio out to lunch and offering him advice on a decision he was wrestling with — take a politically advantageous trip to Europe or attend a school event important to his daughter.
Leahy, who brims with anecdotes about his grandchildren, told Rubio to ditch the trip, advice the young senator took. Later, when Rubio’s daughter was hospitalized, Leahy says he was one of the first to phone him.
Leahy admits that he’s been “a little bit” put off by the affinity for news conferences and the tendency toward horn-tooting among some of his Republican partners. But he also acknowledges media attention can be political lifeblood, and his seat is more secure than those of others.
“Some people come from states where if they didn’t do that, they’d be afraid they wouldn’t get re-elected.”
The “Gang of Eight,” a bipartisan group of senators (Rubio among them) who drafted the immigration reform bill, became the emblem of that effort. Leahy, who chaired the committee of jurisdiction, took a back seat, at least in news accounts.
“There must have been 40 press conferences from everyone except for me,” Leahy recalled. That was intentional, Leahy said. “I let other people do the press conferences. I just get it done. I don’t mean that to sound self-congratulatory. There are show horses and workhorses and I’m more of a workhorse.”
Paul, too, is embracing his role as poster child for the mandatory minimums reform effort.
But by letting his Tea Party counterparts scoop up the media coverage, does Leahy run the risk of lending political capital to a crop of presidential hopefuls?
Asked whether he had concerns that lining up behind conservative lawmakers like Rubio and Paul could lend them political muscle in future campaigns — both are considered potential presidential candidates — Leahy replied, “I’m trying to support what’s best for the public.”
A Washington Post piece outlines why the mandatory minimums bill is a “boon” for Paul: “If Paul can work with these senators and the administration to get something done on mandatory minimum sentences, he can credibly claim that he took the lead on a major issue and got something bipartisan done …”
Bipartisan dealings also run the risk of being a political liability, and Leahy said not everyone is pleased with the work that’s come out of them. It’s harder to parse, for instance, what impact Rubio’s role in immigration reform would have on his 2016 presidential prospects. (The Florida senator has been on damage control duty with the Tea Party ranks.)
“I’m sure there are people in the Republican Party saying, ‘why are you working with him?’” Leahy said. “There have been some eyebrows raised, but then strange things happen.”
Leahy rattles off a number of legislative victories — among them, the Violence Against Women Act, which passed this year, and the foreign aid appropriations bill, approved annually — that he attributes to across-the-aisle collaboration.
Shortly after questioning intelligence officials at a Judiciary Committee hearing on the NSA surveillance programs, Leahy said he received a phone call from President Barack Obama, who spent 45 minutes discussing his concerns. In Leahy’s estimation, support from Republican senators like Utah’s Lee and Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the ranking member of the committee, helped prompt “the administration to sit up and take notice.”
The tentacles of bipartisanship can only extend so far, however.
“Rand Paul has brought up some things where I’ve just said, Rand Paul, this makes no sense. I’m going to vote against you,” Leahy recounted.
Certain topics — like abortion — he and Rubio won’t touch.
“Is Rubio going to agree with me on choice? Of course not,” Leahy said. “But does he know I’ll listen to him and respect him and vice versa? Yes.”
And Leahy’s got little love for the Republicans in the House who’ve put the Senate immigration bill in peril. But while they may be beyond the spell of his bipartisan charm, Leahy said he thinks “some of the bomb throwers among the very radical right in the House” may have helped his cause on issues like immigration. How? “They have worried a lot of Republicans,” Leahy explained, making the more moderate among them more inclined to sit down with him.
Leahy continues to bring House Republicans into the pro tem’s office in an attempt to work out their differences on immigration reform. Asked whether they were making headway, Leahy replied, “I think so,” but he didn’t make any firm predictions. “Part of it is a tea leaf thing, if you know what I mean.”