Democratic Senator Leahy Fights for Women's Rights

Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy—“It’s Ludicrous for Male Senators, 76% of That Body, to Make Decisions About the Private Lives of Nearly 168 Million Women in This Country” May 16, 2022


In politics, defeat sometimes constitutes a victory for the losers. On 5/11/2022, we saw an example of this on the U.S. Senate floor. On 5/02/2022, Justice Alito and his SCOTUS (Supreme Court of the United States) “Gang of Five,” in a leaked draft, overturned the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. Roe gave millions of American women the right to choose whether to have an abortion. Furious Democrats quickly set up a vote to codify or enshrine nationwide the abortion right guaranteed by Roe. From the outset, Democrats understood the math was against them. In the 50-50 Senate, 51 Senators opposed this codification while 49 voted in support. GOPers, including supposedly “pro-choice” Senators (LOL) Susan Collins (R-ME) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) voted with their “Team Red” gang which unanimously opposed protecting Roe. Forty-nine (49) Democrats, with the exception of conservative Joe Manchin (D-WVA), voted to protect Roe (nytimes.com, Karni, 5/11/22). Even if Manchin had voted with his fellow Democrats to codify Roe, they still needed 10 more GOP votes to avoid having this bill filibustered, an impossibility in today’s Religious Right /Trump-dominated GOP. So why did the Democrats take this vote? Senate Democrats used this vote to frame it as a call to action to get their base out in the 11/2022 midterm elections. If Democrats vote heavily and do not stay home in 11/2022, they will then elect like-minded candidates pledged to support and codify Roe into law in a Democratic majority Senate. This vote was so important to Democrats that VP Kamala Harris sat on the Senate dais to show White House support for this bill. Harris noted, “This vote clearly suggests that the Senate is not where the majority of Americans are on this issue.” Harris added, “A priority for all that care about this issue—the priority should be to elect pro-choice leaders (nytimes.com, 5/11/22).” By putting GOP Senators on record as not in favor of protecting Roe’s right to choice, Democrats hope to tar the GOPers as misogynistic extremists (See Karni, nytimes.com, 5/11/22). A 3/2022 Pew Research Center found that 61% of Americans believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while 37% say the opposite (nytimes.com, Karni). After this vote, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) declared, “Elect more Democrats if you want to protect a woman’s freedom and right to choose. Elect more MAGA (Trump) Republicans if you want to see a nationwide ban on abortion, if you want to see doctors and women arrested, if you want no exceptions for rape or incest (Karni, nytimes.com5/11/22).” Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) pointedly stated, “Here we are today, a body of 100—76 percent of which are male—making decisions about the private lives of the nearly 168 million women in this country. That’s ludicrous (nytimes.com, Karni, 5/11/22).” Here’s Senator Leahy.


Eighth-term Democratic Senator Patrick Joseph Leahy (82) is currently Vermont’s senior Senator. By the time his current term ends in 1/2023, Leahy will have moved up to third longest serving Senator in that chamber’s all-time list. Montpelier, Vermont native Leahy grew up in a state that was then one of the most hard-rock Republican, but now has become one of the nation’s top “Blue” ones. A 1961 graduate of VT’s St. Michael’s College, Leahy earned a 1964 law degree form D.C.’s Georgetown University. He returned to VT and joined the law firm of Philip Hoff. In 1962, Hoff had become the first Democrat since before the Civil War to win VT’s governorship. In 1966, Hoff appointed 26-year-old Leahy to fill a vacancy as state’s attorney for Chittenden County, where Burlington, VT’s largest city, lies. Leahy was re-elected to full terms in 1966 and 1970 (Cohen & Cook 2022 Political Almanac). In 1974, 34-year-old Leahy ran for the U.S. Senate seat vacated by liberal GOPer George Aiken. Leahy won election by 4 percentage points, 50%-46%. Leahy had become known as a prosecutor who tried major felony cases and had a solid base in Democratic Burlington. Leahy benefited by running in a Democratic year, 1974, during Nixon’s Watergate scandal. Leahy was the first VT Democrat to win a Senate seat and remains the only one. (Fellow Vermonter Sen. Bernie Sanders won three Senate terms as an Independent.) Leahy is now the only Capitol Hill Democrat serving who was part of the large class of “Watergate babies” elected to the House and Senate in 1974 (Cohen & Cook 2022). In Reagan-GOP year 1980, Leahy barely won re-election by a single percentage point. He has since won re-election fairly easily (Cohen & Cook 2022).


Although Sen. Leahy has impressed his fellow Vermonters with his thoughtful temperament, he is known for periodic flashes of temper and can be a sharp-tongued partisan. During the period of the Iraq War, “W” Bush’s VP Dick Cheney once told Leahy to “Go f—yourself,” after Sen. Leahy criticized the activities of Halliburton, a company Cheney once headed. In 8/2019, Sen. Leahy theatrically ripped up a copy of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s rules of procedure after the panel’s then chair Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) had suspended the rules. Graham wanted to win approval of a bill sought by Trump’s administration to change procedures for those seeking asylum in the U.S. Leahy snarled, “This is supposed to be the Senate Judiciary Committee, not the Donald Trump Committee (Cohen & Cook 2022).”


Sen. Leahy, however, arrived in the Senate in a more collegial time. Even in our now highly polarized era, Leahy, despite these outbursts, has continually reached across the aisle. He has found common ground on civil liberties and criminal justice with hard-right GOPers Rand Paul (R-KY), Mike Lee (R-UT), and Chuck Grassley (R-IA). He works well with fellow Judiciary Committee member Grassley even though Leahy did not hesitate to slam the GOP’s handling of Brett Kavanaugh’s SCOTUS’ nomination when Grassley chaired Judiciary (Cohen & Cook 2022).


Sen. Leahy has a strong liberal voting record with an Almanac composite rating of 96% Liberal v. 4% Conservative. He has received 100% scores from the liberal ADA (Americans for Democratic Action) and the ACLU while getting 5% basement scores from the ACU, the American Conservative Union (Cohen & Cook 2022). In his nearly five decades on Capitol Hill, Sen. Leahy has had influence over many issues, including agricultural subsidies, civil liberties, and international humanitarian aid. He has chaired the Senate Agriculture Committee from 1987-1995, Judiciary from 2001-2003 and again from 2007-2015, and currently chairs Appropriations which he took over in 2021 when the Democrats recaptured the Senate. As the Senate’s most senior member, Leahy initially served as Senate pro- tempore from late 2012 to early 2015, when the GOP re- took the Senate majority. In early 2021, he reassumed this position. In his second round as Senate pro-tempore, Sen. Leahy ended up presiding over Trump’s second impeachment trial when Chief Justice Roberts and VP Kamala Harris declined to preside over this proceeding. This trial involved Trump being charged with inciting the 1/06/2021 mob that stormed Capitol Hill. Leahy ended up being both judge and one of 100 Senate jurors. Trump’s attorneys and some GOP Senators accused him of having a conflict-of-interest. Leahy said, “This (presiding over Trump’s second impeachment trial) is not something I requested.” Leahy added, “I’ve presided hundreds of hours—I don’t know how many rulings I’ve made. I’ve never had anyone, Republican or Democrat, say my rulings were not fair.” Leahy avoided major controversy in his handling of the four-day-trial. At the trial’s end, a majority of Senators, 49 Democrats and 7 GOPers voted to convict Trump but Trump still escaped conviction and removal because this vote was still short of the 2/3 constitutional supermajority required (Cohen & Cook 2022).


Sen. Leahy was a member of his college shooting team and a gun enthusiast. In 1993, he voted against the Brady Bill requiring background checks for individuals purchasing firearms. VT has one of the highest rates of gun ownership in the nation and until recent years some of the least restrictive gun laws. However, after the Newtown, CT 12/14/2012 elementary school massacre, Leahy moved a series of bills through his committee to bar straw purchases and trafficking of guns. His efforts to pass reasonable gun control legislation failed in the end when a bipartisan compromise fell 5 votes short of the 60 needed to break a filibuster (Cohen & Cook 2022). Sen. Leahy tried to build support for immigration reform by holding hearings on this issue and guided the major overhaul of immigration reform through the Senate. This measure died in the then GOP House (Cohen & Cook 2022). Leahy was instrumental in stripping the NSA’s (National Security Agency) ability from collecting U.S. citizens’ phone and internet communications in bulk (Cohen & Cook 2022).


Leahy was an early supporter of Obama’s 2008 successful presidential bid. During the Obama administration, Sen. Leahy guided the successful SCOTUS confirmations of Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. Leahy led 10 filibusters against hard right “W” Bush appeals court nominees. He led the criticism of McConnell and his fellow GOPers when they refused to hold hearings on federal Judge (now Atty. General) Merrick Garland in 2016 to succeed the late Justice Antonin Scalia, supposedly because it was a presidential election year. Leahy called that tactic “sleazy,” and added, “Have the courage to do your job and actually ask questions.” In late 2020, McConnell said he would move to confirm federal judge Amy Coney Barrett to replace the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg just before the presidential election. Sen. Leahy rightly accused McConnell of a “flip flop” that would “stain the Supreme Court.” Leahy told NPR (National Public Radio) that, “I’ve never seen political hypocrisy at this level (Cohen & Cook 2022).”


In 2005, Sen. Leahy led the questioning of “W’s” SCOTUS nominees John Roberts and Samuel Alito. He voted to confirm Roberts, but not Alito. Leahy accused “W” of being “in the midst of a radical realignment of the powers of government and its intrusiveness into the private lives of Americans. This nomination (Alito’s) is part of that plan (Cohen & Cook 2022).” He voted against Trump’s first nominee Neil Gorsuch. Sen. Leahy opposed several of Gorsuch’s previous rulings and his ”nonresponsive testimony” before the Judiciary Committee. Leahy announced he would oppose Trump’s nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the SCOTUS bench even before allegations of sexual assault were raised against him. He did not believe Kavanaugh had been truthful about several policy questions. Leahy called the Kavanaugh hearings “the most incomplete, most partisan and least transparent vetting for any Supreme Court nominee I have ever seen, and I’ve seen more than anyone else in the Senate (Cohen & Cook 2022).” He voted against Judge Amy Coney Barrett as well because “she refused to stand up for even the most basic tenets of our democracy and refused to recuse herself from any election dispute.” Speaking weeks before Trump refused to accept the results of the 2020 election, Leahy aptly warned, “Make no mistake, Trump was listening (to Barrett’s failure to say she would stay out of election disputes) and he sees this as a green light to do whatever he wants (Cohen & Cook 2022).”


Since 1989, Leahy has strongly advocated eliminating land mines. He lists his efforts to eliminate land mines and to successfully free government contractor Alan Gross from a Cuban prison as among his proudest accomplishments (Cohen & Cook 2022).


We should not at all be surprised at Sen. Leahy’s attempt to uphold and codify Roe. Catholic Leahy has generally supported abortion rights. He has rejected proposals to limit minors or those stationed on military bases from having abortions performed (“The Political Guide”). As early as 1982, Sen. Leahy voted against a measure sponsored by the recently deceased Orrin Hatch (R-UT) to reverse Roe and allow Congress and individual states to adopt laws banning abortions (nytimes.com, Weinraub, 3/11/82).


In 11/2021, Sen. Leahy announced he would not run for re-election in 2022. The seat should be safe for Democrats in VT which Biden took by 35 percentage points in 2020 (nbcnews.com, Finn, Fulton, & Seitz-Wald, 11/15/2021). VT’s only Congressmember, eight-term progressive Peter Welch is running for Leahy’s Senate seat and looks favored to win it (See Cohen & Cook 2022, apnews.com, 1/13/22, nbcnews.com, 11/15/21). Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) aptly noted that “very few people in the U.S. Senate can match the record of Patrick Leahy (nbcnews.com, Finn, et al, 11/15/21).” In addition to being a top- notch Senator, Leahy is known for his hobbies. He is an accomplished photographer, although he has been legally blind in his left eye since birth. Leahy has been a fan of Batman comic books since childhood and has appeared briefly in five Batman movies. He had a speaking part in the “Dark Knight” in 2008. In that movie, Leahy told the Joker, “We’re not intimidated by thugs (Cohen & Cook 2022).” Democrats, we too must not “be intimidated by thugs” led by Trump or by thuggish- like obstructionist GOP tactics. We must fight as Senator Leahy has to protect Roe and push just as hard for the progressive programs Biden has been advocating. Again, that means, vote, vote, and vote in droves in 11/2022 to keep and add to our House and Senate majority. Women’s right to choose and our democracy depend upon it.