Vermont Sen. Patrick J. Leahy announced Monday he won’t seek reelection to a ninth term in Congress, opting to retire following nearly five decades in Washington.
Leahy is the first Senate Democrat to announce his retirement, and his departure will mark a changing of the guard in the Democratic caucus. Leahy’s the most senior senator in the chamber and serves as president pro tempore, and is chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee.
“It's time to put down the gavel,” Leahy said from the Vermont state house in Montpelier, where he appeared with his wife Marcelle. “It is time to pass the torch to the next Vermonter who will carry on this work of our great state. It's time to come home.”
During his tenure, Leahy has held three chairmanships, questioned all nine sitting Supreme Court justices during their confirmation hearings and had a hand in drafting dozens of laws since he took his first oath of office in January 1975.
Leahy’s retirement announcement means that both he and Appropriations ranking member Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., will leave Congress at the same time, ushering in the first time the panel will likely be led by women.
Maine’s Susan Collins is expected to take the helm as the top Republican on the Appropriations Committee at the beginning of the 118th Congress with Washington state’s Patty Murray in line to become the top Democrat.
Murray possibly leaving the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions panel to become the top Democrat on Appropriations could cause something of a domino effect.
Open seat race
Five Senate Republicans have already said they would not run for reelection next year, but Leahy is the first Democrat to do so.
Leahy’s retirement opens up a Senate seat in the reliably Democratic Green Mountain State, which President Joe Biden won by 36 percentage points last year. Leahy was elected to an eighth term in the Senate in 2016 by 28 points, winning 61 percent of the vote in his race against Republican businessman Scott Milne. Leahy’s campaign spent $4.9 million on the race while Milne’s spent just $106,000.
Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Gary Peters praised Leahy as a "lion of the Senate" and expressed confidence Democrats would win the open seat race.
"Vermont is a blue state that has not elected a Republican to statewide federal office in more than 20 years, and Democrats look forward to winning this Senate seat in 2022,” Peters said in a statement.
Some Republicans believe GOP Gov. Phil Scott could put the state in play if he decides to jump into the race. But Scott, who won a third term last year by 41 points, has not indicated he wants to run.
“I don’t have any interest in running for the Senate,” Scott told The Atlantic in May. “I’m terribly happy right here in Vermont.”
On the Democratic side, Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., has long been considered a front-runner to get his party’s nod to replace Leahy in the Senate.
Welch hasn’t commented yet on whether he’ll run for Leahy’s seat. A campaign spokesman referred inquiries to an official statement from Welch praising Leahy’s “incredible service” in the Senate, without making any announcement on his own plans.
Republicans lauded Leahy's retirement as an indication that the political environment is shifting in their favor.
"Pat Leahy is smart enough to see the signs of building Republican momentum that threaten to sweep his party out of power," said Steven Law, president of the GOP super PAC Senate Leadership Fund, which is aligned with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Leahy, 81, is the first and only Democrat elected to represent Vermont in the Senate. Sanders is an independent who caucuses with Democrats.
Leahy has mostly coasted to reelection in recent election cycles. His closest race came when he ran for a second term in 1980, defeating Republican Stewart M. Ledbetter, who served as the state’s banking and insurance commissioner, by just 2 points.
When Leahy leaves Congress he’ll be the third longest-serving senator in U.S. history behind Robert C. Byrd, a West Virginia Democrat who spent more than 51 years as a senator, and Daniel K. Inouye, a Hawaii Democrat who had just under 50 years in office. Byrd and Inouye also served as Appropriations chairmen.
First sworn in on Jan. 3, 1975, Leahy will reach the 48-year mark just as he retires in January 2023.
Leahy holds the runner-up spot for the most votes cast in the Senate with nearly 17,000, placing him behind Byrd, who holds the record with 18,689 votes during his career. It’s unlikely Leahy would surpass that total before his retirement.
Leahy’s career extends beyond drafting legislation and casting votes.
He is the sole member of Congress to have been featured in several of the Batman movies and is sometimes referred to as the “Senator of Gotham.”
Leahy’s first appearance came in 1995 in "Batman Forever" with additional casting in "Batman and Robin" in 1997, "The Dark Knight" in 2008, "The Dark Knight Rises" in 2012 and "Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice" in 2016.
Leahy was originally connected to the movie franchise after asking DC Comics to create a book that would teach children about the dangers of landmines.
The story, "Batman: Death of Innocents," ended with a girl being killed by a land mine following a debate about whether the character should have died. Leahy later placed a copy of the comic book on each senator's desk while advocating for legislation that would end the export of land mines.
“Our point was and I argued for the ending was there are no happy endings with land mines,” Leahy said in a later interview with CQ Roll Call.
Leahy is also known as the Senate’s unofficial photographer, often spotted with his camera in hand to capture behind-the-scenes images at the Capitol, from presidential inaugurations and impeachments to historic winter storms.
Wielding the gavel
Leahy became the top Democrat on Appropriations in 2017 after the retirement of Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md, after spending roughly two decades in his party’s top slot on Judiciary including a brief stint as chairman in 2001 and again from 2007 through 2014. He was chairman of the Agriculture panel in the late 1980s and early 1990s before the GOP takeover after the 1994 midterms.
Leahy fought some tough battles against former President Donald Trump’s administration as ranking member, including the longest partial government shutdown in U.S. history that began in December 2018 after a standoff over U.S.-Mexico border wall funding sought by the president.
He’s got a more willing partner in the White House now in his old Judiciary panel colleague Biden, but Leahy still has to work with his chamber’s Republicans to get bills passed.
Leahy ascended to the full committee gavel at Appropriations earlier this year after runoff wins by Ossoff and fellow Georgia Democrat Raphael Warnock gave Democrats the narrowest control, with zero votes to spare in a 50-50 chamber.
After taking over as chairman, Leahy faced significant changes to the Appropriations Committee roster after Democrats adopted a new rule meant to spread out committee and party leadership posts to more members.
That meant Leahy and other senior Democrats on the panel, who held chairmanships on top committees, couldn’t pick subcommittee gavels until after the more junior members had a chance.
Leahy was not particularly happy with the rule, especially after he lost his long-standing role as the top Democrat on the State-Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee, a position he’d held for over two decades.
He’s been a central figure in foreign policy debates during his career, including a stint as top Democrat on the Select Intelligence Committee leading the investigation into the Reagan administration arms sales to Iran and diversion of funds to Nicaraguan rebels — what became known as the “Iran-Contra” scandal. In addition to his work to ban landmines, Leahy’s led efforts to tie U.S. foreign aid to human rights and boost funding for infectious diseases around the world.
Leahy handed the State-Foreign Operations gavel off to Chris Coons, D-Del., but he still kept a hand in that panel’s oversight, including holding full committee hearings on the State Department budget.
Leahy ended a decade-old earmark ban in the Senate, setting up new transparency mechanisms and guardrails for the process in line with his House Democratic counterpart, Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut.
During a floor speech in April, Leahy said lawmakers had a constitutional responsibility to direct government spending and that members are often better aware of what their states need than unelected officials.
“Every member of this chamber has their hands tied. Why? Because we ceded the power of the purse to unelected bureaucrats here in Washington when we instituted a ban on congressionally directed spending,” Leahy said. “As a result, even though we appropriate the money, we can't even direct a tiny fraction of the tax dollars we collect from our hard-working constituents and send those tax dollars back into their communities.”
Despite Republicans and Democrats receiving billions of dollars in earmarks for home-state projects, the appropriations process remains stuck in Leahy’s first year as chairman. Leahy will have the rest of this budget cycle as well as next year’s to leave his final stamp on appropriations bills before he retires to Vermont. –