POLITICS NOVEMBER 19, 2001
Patrick Leahy doesn't look like an especially groovy guy. He is bald and pale, speaks in a gravelly monotone, and wears drab gray suits. If you didn't know he was a U.S. senator, you might peg him for a NASA engineer. But upon closer inspection, the Vermont Democrat turns out to have some unexpectedly funky tastes. He is, for instance, an avowed Grateful Dead fan who can explain the bootleg concert-tape trade, and who once brought Jerry Garcia to the Senate dining room. He has dined with U2 singer Bono and, at last year's Democratic convention, hosted a bash at Hollywood's Sunset Room featuring sultry rocker Sheryl Crow. Leahy even took to the Senate floor in 1994 to hail the mass appeal of his state's answer to the Dead--the trippy jam band Phish. ("Add two trampolines, a vacuum cleaner, a first-rate light show, and you have a live performance that is hard to forget," he explained to the American people.) Leahy is also a Batman fanatic who owns hundreds of masked-man comic books, has appeared in a Batman movie, and penned the introduction to a Batman book. Throw in his other signature issues--defusing old land mines, protecting Internet privacy (he has been called "the cybersenator"), promoting Ben and Jerry's ice cream--and Leahy starts to seem pretty cool for an old white guy in a suit.
This quirky repertoire delights liberal fans from Burlington to Berkeley--especially since Leahy's ascension this year to chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. In his new post, Leahy is one of the most powerful Democrats in Congress. He has the power to block George W. Bush's judicial nominees, including any future Supreme Court appointments and, since September 11, has been a fulcrum of the debate over granting law enforcement new powers to fight terrorism.
But it has been a rough transition from Senator Mellow to Mr. Chairman. Leahy has found himself under near-constant assault from Republicans who say he plays vindictive games with their judicial nominees. The attorney general has suggested that he endangered the public by trying to stall and water down anti-terrorism legislation. Even fellow Democrats claim he has been imperious, hypersensitive, and a pain to work with. Indeed, Leahy is fast becoming one of the most resented members of the Senate. And this isolation--from his Democratic colleagues as well as his Republican antagonists--is starting to undermine the political causes about which he cares so much.
For most of his 27 years in the Senate, Leahy has been less a legislative heavyweight than a spokesman for the NPR set, a champion of liberal causes like expanding political asylum, death sentence reviews, and ending the travel ban on Cuba. When the Senate gave nonbinding approval to missile defense in 1999, Leahy cast one of just three dissenting votes. Throughout the 1990s he pushed, in opposition to the Clinton administration, for a global treaty outlawing land mines. And Leahy was among the Senate's bluntest critics of the Supreme Court after its Bush v. Gore decision, fuming, "Their credibility ... and their moral posture is so diminished, it will take years to repair."
All that changed in May, when the defection of his fellow Vermonter, Jim Jeffords, tipped the Senate to Democratic control. Delaware Senator Joe Biden was next in line to chair the Judiciary Committee, but instead chose to take over Foreign Relations. And so, Leahy suddenly had a powerful perch. Liberal interest groups were thrilled. But on Capitol Hill the reaction was less effusive. Some Democrats considered Leahy to be fairly pleasant, someone with "a real low-key affability," as one party operative puts it. But many others found him prickly and arrogant. "He always had a much higher view of himself than anyone else," says a former top aide to another liberal Senate Democrat who remembers his boss disliking Leahy despite their ideological kinship.
And, as feared, Leahy hasn't made many friends during his short tenure as chairman. Even by the testy standards of judicial nominations, Republicans have reacted viscerally to his stewardship. On one level, the complaints are hard to take too seriously. Though The Wall Street Journal editorial page has attacked him for "unprecedented stonewalling on judges," Leahy has treated nominees no worse than Republicans treated Clinton's. A Democratic operative notes that Leahy has an "extraordinarily difficult" job as Judiciary chairman and should be given some slack. But GOP senators insist Leahy has made the process unusually personal. According to a Senate Republican aide, after Idaho Republican Larry Craig criticized Leahy in the media, Leahy told him that one of his home-state judges would have to wait until next year for a hearing. The aide also says Leahy warned Charles Grassley of Iowa that if he signed a letter of grievance circulating among Republican Judiciary Committee members, his judges' scheduled hearings would be canceled. (Aides to the senators didn't respond, and a Leahy staffer says he doesn't know anything about the charges.) Meanwhile, Colorado's two GOP Senators, Wayne Allard and Ben Nighthorse Campbell, told Roll Call last month that Leahy implied their support for a GOP filibuster--protesting stalled nominations--would affect the fate of their judges. (A Leahy aide told me that anyone familiar with the senator's dry wit would understand that he was kidding.) As a result, Leahy has become the subject of profane denunciations by Republican senators during their weekly policy lunches, according to one attendee. Adds a top Republican aide, "They are taking his actions personally because it seems to be the way he operates."
Such accusations would be easier to dismiss as partisan sniping if members of Leahy's own party weren't grousing as well. Democratic staffers are still buzzing, for instance, about Leahy's harsh treatment of California Democrat Dianne Feinstein at a September 13 Judiciary hearing on a Justice Department authorization bill. Feinstein wanted to introduce an amendment adding several new judicial slots for California's Southern District Court, where she argued backlogs had created a state of "crisis." She'd tried for months to add the judges, Feinstein pleaded, without avail. "I don't do this lightly," a transcript shows her saying. "I obviously don't like to annoy my chairman. I have tried and I have tried and I have tried, and now I fight."
"Don't speak of annoyance," Leahy snapped. "This is not a time to be personal on these things." Leahy then patronizingly suggested that Feinstein "may not have understood" an earlier promise he made to pass the measure if she would hold off for now. "I was told you would not approve that," Feinstein fired back, "and I would be `Rule Sixteened'"--i.e., shot down. Several other senators--including the liberal Democrat Dick Durbin--rose to Feinstein's defense. Growing ever more irritated, Leahy turned "beet red," according to an aide, and snapped at Feinstein for talking to her staff while he was speaking. The two senators finally retreated to a private anteroom, from which they could be heard yelling at each other. By the end of the exchange, witnesses say, Feinstein was practically in tears.
Multiple people to whom I related this story replied that anyone who so upsets Dianne Feinstein--less than a fan favorite herself--must be doing something right. And a Leahy aide notes that Feinstein's amendment was added to the bill a few weeks later. But others say that Leahy's response to this mild insubordination was typical. "He'll blow up at you," says a basically sympathetic observer. "Even if you don't make it personal, he'll take it personally."
And Leahy's prickliness is starting to have national policy ramifications. Consider what happened during negotiations last month over emergency anti-terrorism legislation. At the outset, the Bush administration was confident it would get enhanced law enforcement authority from the GOP-controlled House. It was Leahy and the Democratic-controlled Senate they worried about. After all, last year Leahy, a former prosecutor deeply wary of broad law enforcement powers, almost single-handedly sank a similar anti-terrorism bill crafted by Feinstein and Arizona Republican Jon Kyl (See "Sin of Commission," by Franklin Foer, October 8). And the September 11 attacks appeared to do little to change his mind. When Attorney General John Ashcroft asked Congress for swift passage of expanded wiretapping, detention, and evidence-sharing powers, Leahy insisted on opening up detailed negotiations with Justice Department and White House officials before advancing a bill out of his committee.
Few people objected to such consultation. But Leahy proceeded to alienate his colleagues by limiting the talks to a narrow circle consisting of himself, Ted Kennedy, ranking Judiciary Republican Orrin Hatch, and Justice Department officials. When other Judiciary Committee senators-- primarily Feinstein and New York's Chuck Schumer-- suggested changes, Leahy and his famously thorny chief counsel, Bruce Cohen, closed ranks further, implying that the negotiations were his responsibility alone. "I think it was a mistake to go ahead with that view of the world," says one civil liberties lobbyist.
And, in a sad irony, Leahy's insularity appears to have made the bill less protective of civil liberties. Had Leahy been more open to working with his fellow senators, some observers say, he might have had enough support in his committee to alter the bill more to his liking. Instead he went it largely solo. At an October 2 press conference, Ashcroft, joined by Hatch and Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, implied that Leahy was stalling the legislation and leaving the public "susceptible" to more attacks. It was a startlingly partisan move--and one that appalled Leahy, who accuses the White House of shifting its own time-consuming delays--but it worked. Without allies on his committee, and quite likely under pressure from Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, who was concerned about the Democrats looking weak on terrorism, Leahy was forced to cave, according to observers.
The outcome: The Senate, as The Wall Street Journal put it, "produced a bill whose vast expansion of law-enforcement powers delivers almost everything the Bush administration sought." In the House, by contrast, a coalition of ACLU liberals and anti-government conservatives succeeded in adding a sunset provision phasing out expanded wiretap authority after five years, along with other restraints. (The final bill includes a four-year sunset.)
Leahy takes credit for slowing down and restraining Ashcroft's original plan. But the anti-terrorism fight clearly left a sour taste in his mouth. At an October 25 press conference celebrating Senate passage of the final bill, he wore the sullen frown of a sore loser. Even as the c-span cameras rolled, he couldn't resist scowling and bickering with Hatch. Things got so touchy that Lott had to step in and defuse the tension with a joke about what a "magnificent achievement" it was getting the two to agree.
But then, despite his Deadhead tastes, Leahy has never pretended to be all sunshine and flowers. Indeed, when he emerged from the 1997 premiere of Batman & Robin, Leahy complained that the movie presented too cheery a vision of a superhero who was, after all, first conceived as an obsessed loner seeking vengeance for his parents' deaths. "I'd love to get back to the dark side," Leahy told The Hill. In his own work, at least, he seems to be succeeding.