The Jeffords Effect: Patrick Leahy’s Heightened Profile

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(Host) It’s been a year since Vermont Senator James Jeffords left the Republican Party and the ripple effects continue. One of those most affected by Jeffords’ actions has been Vermont’s other Senator, Patrick Leahy.

Leahy has served in the Senate as a Democrat, since 1974, and was the ranking minority member on a number of Republican controlled committees. But when control of the Senate switched to the Democrats, Leahy assumed a much more pivotal and controversial role on Capitol Hill.

VPR’s Nina Keck reports the third part in our series, "The Jeffords Effect."

(Keck) Few lawmakers are more powerful than Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy. As chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Leahy oversees the federal court system and the many branches of the Justice Department, such as the FBI and the Immigration and Naturalization Service. In the past ten months, Senator Leahy has used his new-found power to challenge the Bush administration on a number of highly publicized issues. This week, Senator Leahy and other lawmakers are calling for a thorough investigation into what the president and the Justice Department knew regarding terrorist threats prior to September 11.

(Leahy) "If mistakes are made, asking questions about what went wrong is not being partisan, it just makes good sense. Not because we want to make scapegoats of anyone, it’s just that we all know that there are going to be more terrorist attacks and we want to make sure that the mistakes of the past are not made in the future."

(Keck) Patrick Leahy says the Judiciary Committee has already begun addressing problems in intelligence gathering within the FBI and Leahy says the efforts are getting strong bipartisan support. But while Democrats and Republicans may share common ground in the fight against terrorism, the issue of judicial appointments is decidedly more partisan. Former Attorney General Edwin Meese, who served in the Reagan administration, lashed out at Senator Leahy last week at a press conference in Burlington:

(Meese) "You’ve never had a situation where one chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee was single handedly blocking people from getting hearings and where you’ve had a president being obstructed for the length of time you have here, and where you have the judicial emergency because of all the vacancies."

(Keck) In addition to deliberately slowing the process down, Meese and other conservative Republicans accuse Patrick Leahy of using political ideology as a litmus test for nominees. But Senator Leahy argues that he’s approved more judges in ten months than previous committees did in one or even two years. And he says political ideology has become part of the judicial debate because President Bush said it would be a major part of his nominating criteria:

(Leahy) "The constitution says the Senate will advise and consent, not advise and rubber stamp. And if the president decides he’s going to make an ideological shift in the courts, that’s not going to happen. I remind people of a popular war-time president [who] tried to do that – it was Franklin Roosevelt, an idol of mine. He tried to do that with the court and the Senate slapped him down immediately. As well they should."

(Keck) John Nowacki, director of legal policy at the Free Congress Foundation, doesn’t dispute the importance of the Judiciary Committee’s role in providing checks and balances. What Nowacki takes offense at is the way Senator Leahy is assessing candidates’ qualifications, especially with regard to the standards set by the American Bar Association:

(Nowacki) "At first they were saying a nominee had to have a good ABA rating…. Then when it turned out most of Bush’s nominees were getting qualified or well-qualified ratings from the ABA rating, then it became a question of whether they had home-state senator support. When you look at the original eight nominees, all but one had the support of both of their home state senators, so they’re still waiting…. So it’s a process of moving the goal posts. Every time that something to stop the nominees doesn’t work, it gets moved back further and further and further."

(Keck) Conservative Republicans hope anger over the situation will help their candidates in upcoming elections. They’ve begun a strong grass roots campaign criticizing Patrick Leahy and the other Democrats on the Judiciary Committee in letters to the editor and in other public forums. Former Attorney General Edwin Meese’s visit to Vermont last week was part of that effort. Ralph Neas is president of the liberal group People For the American Way, a civil liberties organization based in Washington.

(Neas) "There is no question in my mind that the right wing all around the country- they have targeted Pat Leahy. They see him as a threat to their efforts to take over the entire federal judiciary and put right wing ideologues into those positions."

(Keck) While it may be too early to tell how much of an effect Patrick Leahy will have on upcoming elections, his impact on other issues over the past ten months has been substantial. The Vermont senator called for the first major investigation into the FBI in decades. Those bipartisan hearings are ongoing and have resulted in several internal reforms.

Paul Kane, a Senate reporter for the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call, says Republicans and Democrats alike were upset with the FBI after it was discovered that long time agent Robert Hansen had been spying for years for the Russians. Had Republicans remained in control of the Senate, Kane says they too would likely have called for an examination of the FBI. But he says Republican hearings would probably have been less forceful.

(Kane) "There’s always a much stronger oversight of the administration if the party in power has the other party in power on Capitol Hill. And I think that might be what you’re seeing here in the way Leahy is overseeing the FBI and the Justice Department."

(Keck) Leahy also scrutinized the highly publicized anti-terrorism legislation that was drafted after September 11. Reporter Paul Kane says in the weeks following the terrorist attacks President Bush’s anti-terrorism legislation had been headed for speedy approval:

(Kane) "Until Leahy sort of told everyone to take a deep breath – let’s see what’s in the legislation before we all jump off and support it."

(Keck) Senator Leahy wanted more security along the U.S.-Canadian border. He was also deeply troubled with the constitutionality of the bill and how the new legislation would affect immigrants:

(Kane) "Leahy really held in and fought on that and that slowed things down and very much tempered the final draft of the bill."

(Keck) In addition to chairing the Judiciary Committee, Patrick Leahy also chairs the Appropriations Subcommittee on Foreign Operations. That’s the committee which decides who gets foreign aid. Leahy says lawmakers can no longer dole out foreign aid with a cold war mentality. With the threat of terrorism so pervasive, he says a new policy must be developed:

(Leahy) "What I’m saying is, there are a whole lot of situations that we’ll end up breeding more terrorists if we’re not helpful. If people don’t see us – the most wealthy nation on Earth – if they don’t see us giving money to help with basic needs in very poor countries. I would like to redirect money that was often used to just prop up some despot and instead get the money to build schools, save drinking water, get polio vaccines, do the kind of things that make a difference in people’s lives."

(Keck) While such changes might help people overseas, Senator Leahy says most of the things he’s fighting for will directly affect Vermonters – things like the recent farm and education bills to name a few. But he’s quick to point out that those victories would have been impossible had Senator Jim Jeffords not left the Republican Party.

(Leahy) "Dairy Farmers never would have been protected had Jim not made the change, had the Republicans stayed in charge. The White House has reversed positions it’s taken on arsenic and water, clean air rules, student loans – all those things they expected the Senate to rubber stamp. They don’t do it any more."

(Keck) Senate reporter Paul Kane says another way to look at the past ten months on Capitol Hill is to notice the legislation that hasn’t moved through the ranks. Conservative bills limiting abortion rights, immigration policy, welfare reform and gun control simply aren’t there. That would likely be a very different story if Republican Orrin Hatch was still sitting in Pat Leahy’s chair.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Nina Keck.

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