Leahy emerges as point person against administration

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(Host) Pick any major dispute between Congress and the Bush White House and you’ll likely find one Vermont senator in the thick of it.

From illegal wiretaps to the scandal over the political dismissal of U.S. Attorneys, Patrick Leahy has emerged as his party’s point person against the administration.

VPR’s Bob Kinzel went to Washington recently to look into Leahy’s new role.

(Woman) "Please welcome senator Patrick Leahy!"

(Kinzel) On a very hot and humid summer day in Washington D.C., Senator Patrick Leahy leaps up the steps of a make shift stage right next to the Capital building.

A rally is being held by the American Civil Liberties Union to protest the lack of legal protections for detainees and suspected terrorists who’ve been sent to the U.S. detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Leahy is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and his message is tailored for the appreciative crowd.

(Leahy) "And for those who say we have to do this to make us safer – shame on you. Shame on you. This is wrong. It is unconstitutional. It is un-American."

(Cheers fade)

(Kinzel) Not all the participants at the rally think Leahy has gone far enough. Some want him to initiate impeachment hearings against President Bush:

(Crowd voices) "Senator Leahy Senator Leahy Senator Leahy Senator Leahy, any chance of impeachment?"

(Kinzel) On that issue, Leahy disappoints his more liberal supporters. He says impeachment hearings would distract from oversight investigations into the Iraq war and the Justice Department.

In a brief interview as we were walking back to the Capital, I asked Leahy about the views of those individuals who think that drastic measures are needed following the terrorist attacks of September 11th:

(Kinzel) "So what do you say to those people who say, We’re at war. This is a time of war. And during World War Two and other wars there were restrictions on rights.’"

(Leahy) "The only thing comparable to this was during World War Two is we locked up Japanese Americans. And we realized after what a blot that was on the conscience of the country. It was a horrible mistake. Why make the same mistake twice? And it doesn’t make us any safer. It doesn’t make us any safer."

(Kinzel) As one of the most senior members of the Senate, he’s now serving in his 33rd year. Leahy has a small hideaway office one floor below the Senate chamber.

The office has no markings on the door and from the outside could be confused with a utility closest. Inside it resembles a small living room and it houses one of the few working fireplaces in the Capitol building.

In an interview in this office, Leahy says he’s using the Judiciary committee for strong oversight because he says for the past 4 years Republican majorities in Congress were very reluctant to question the president’s policies.

(Leahy) "In a way, I’ve told the people in the Administration from the top down that they’re not helped by having a rubber stamp Congress. They make some egregious mistakes, and they have because nobody calls them on it nobody’s there to say no. There’s no gatekeeper."

(Kinzel) Is Leahy an effective chairman of the Judiciary Committee? The Democrats say the answer is definitely yes’. And most Republicans on the panel regard him as "a worthy adversary."

Texas Republican senator John Cornyn describes himself as a conservative member of the committee. Cornyn, who’s a former chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court, says the war on terror requires some new legal strategies that Leahy hasn’t embraced.

I spoke with Senator Cornyn riding the underground shuttle train that connects the Capital with Senate office buildings:

(Cornyn) "So he and I do have some serious disagreements on policy issues regarding the war and the trial of detainees. I think primarily people have had to change their mindset from a criminal law context, where the goal of the law is to punish people after they’ve already done something bad, to a terrorism context where we actually try to stop bad things from happening in the first place. And so the rules are a little different."

(Kinzel) Cornyn has co-sponsored a number of bills with Leahy but he thinks Leahy is dead wrong when it comes to the effectiveness of the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay.

(Cornyn) "All of the evidence that I’ve heard from our intelligence authorities is that it’s actually intercepted information that has been useful to stop terrorist attacks. It’s one of the key ways that we have made our country safer after 9/11, when we found out that our intelligence gathering capability was deeply flawed."

(Kinzel) Leahy says Guantanamo has yielded little valuable information and has damaged this country’s reputation around the world:

(Leahy) "It would not endanger our safety at all to close Guantanamo today. What it would do, is signal to the rest of the world that America is going to start following its own laws."

(Kinzel) Leahy and the Democrats face some major obstacles in trying to change the policies of the Bush Administration. They need the support of 60 senators to prevent a filibuster and two thirds of the Senate to override a presidential veto. As a result, so far most of their reform efforts have failed.

For VPR News I’m Bob Kinzel.

(Host) In the second part of our special series, Bob Kinzel will examine Leahy’s role in the constitutional showdown between the Senate Judiciary committee and President Bush.

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