Strange bedfellows: Leahy finds ways to work with Tea Party darlings

From left: Congressman Peter Welch, Senator Bernie Sanders, Senator Patrick Leahy and Zoran Jolevski, the Macedonian ambassador with his wife.

From left: Rep. Peter Welch, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Sen. Patrick Leahy and Zoran Jolevski, the Macedonian ambassador, with his wife.

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.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.

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.”

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.

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.”

Alicia Freese

Comment Policy requires that all commenters identify themselves by their authentic first and last names. Initials, pseudonyms or screen names are not permissible.

No personal harrassment, abuse, or hate speech is permitted. Be succinct and to the point. Comments should be 1000 characters or fewer. If your comment is over 500 words, consider sending a commentary instead.

We personally review and moderate every comment that is posted here. This takes a lot of time; please consider donating to keep the conversation productive and informative.

The purpose of this policy is to encourage a civil discourse among readers who are willing to stand behind their identities and their comments. VTDigger has created a safe zone for readers who wish to engage in a thoughtful discussion on a range of subjects. We hope you join the conversation. If you have questions or concerns about our commenting platform, please review our Commenting FAQ.

Privacy policy
  • You might want to dial down the rhetoric on this article. You are sounding more partisan than journalistic. Did you know the tea party and republicans who are elected actually won a majority vote? So when you do the Us and Them thing, well, we are all Americans, so if you start there, Pat is just doing his job. Maybe you should move on past elections you feel were misguided or all the Great press Tea party gets (all I see is negative press regarding T party, as if they are aliens from Mars.)

  • Gregory Lapworth

    Makes a change for Leahy not being with the liberal “lovey’s. He just might learn something.

  • Lisa Boisvert

    Senator Leahy’s actions show he is a true statesman who gets to the heart of the matter with his fellow Senators and can move beyond the stagnation that comes with this ever more polarized political body, the US Congress. He is offering a model for the future. We all have to find our way together and the more we can see and hear one another, the more solutions we will find. Force does not work. It does seem like a paradox that the wise Senator, the Progressives and the Tea Party find more in common with each other on certain issues than with the rigid two party line of the republicans and the democrats who act just like each other when it comes to standing up against corporate corruption and cronyism. No one wants to stand for the little guy anymore and each blame the other. I applaud the good Senator for finding a way to meet his fellow human being and bring together voices in the Senate for positive movement. Let him be an example for all that progress can be made when one reaches out to find common interest in the “other.”

    • Gregory Lapworth

      Hope you are there the next time the “useful idiots” shout down a speaker they don’t agree with. Why is it the left seem to be the shouters in most cases? Coming together, sure.

      • krister adams

        Excuse me?! Wasn’t it a conservative that swore at Leahy in Senate Chambers and yet another that shouted out during the POTUS State of the Union speech? Etc., Etc.

        • Gregory Lapworth

          Don’t muddle facts……who has been shouted down at UVM over the years…not liberal speakers! We are talking Vermont…or weren’t you here then? Remember Leahy’s credentials, aka…”leaky Leahy.”

  • John Brabant

    Here, here!!

  • David Bresett

    Leahy has been around way to long and has even sided on many occassions with these teaparty, American hating, prison lovers. Time for Leahy to retire.

Thanks for reporting an error with the story, "Strange bedfellows: Leahy finds ways to work with Tea Party darlings"