Leahy at forefront in guns, immigration fights

Monday - 3/4/2013, 1:50pm EST

Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) -- For nearly four decades, Sen. Patrick Leahy has captured official Washington going about its business -- and pleasures -- in photographs as no one else has. Supreme Court nominees behind the scenes of their confirmation hearings. The hands of presidents signing bills, including President Barack Obama's in midsignature on equal pay legislation. Former President George H. W. Bush, in a Goofy hat. And then-senator Joe Biden and his wife, Jill, on a bench near the Eiffel Tower during a NATO meeting.

The Vermont Democrat, Batman enthusiast and Grateful Dead fan is near the top of Washington's power structure -- he's third-in-line to the presidency -- and deep in the details of its fiercest legislative fights. Immigration, he has said, defines the country like few other issues. Plenty of Americans feel that way about gun policy. As Judiciary Committee chairman in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., massacre, Leahy's in charge of that quandary, too.

He says he chose to remain as Judiciary chairman rather than move to the helm of the Appropriations Committee, which controls the government's purse strings, because Judiciary is handling "every hot button issue there is."

"Judiciary is where my passion is," Leahy said in a telephone interview.

At 72 and in his seventh term, the gravelly voiced senator is one of the last of the old bulls in a chamber that rewards longevity with power. His cameos in the Batman movies and his chairmanship of two Supreme Court confirmation hearings -- for Justices Sonya Sotomayor and Elena Kagan -- have made Leahy one of the Senate's more visible members. With the deaths in recent years of West Virginia Sen. Robert S. Byrd and Hawaii Sen. Dan Inouye, Leahy is now the longest-serving Democrat in the Senate. In the presidential line of succession, he stands only behind Biden, now vice president, and House Speaker John Boehner.

Leahy is widely liked in the starkly polarized Senate, and he brims with anecdotes of key moments during 38 years in the chamber. One of his favorites: a 2004 run-in with then-Vice President Dick Cheney, who did not appreciate Leahy's loud calls for an investigation into Cheney's former employer, Halliburton Co., over its contracts in Iraq. On the Senate floor, Cheney famously suggested that the senator from Vermont perform an obscene act on himself.

Leahy, said Sen. Thad Cochran, "can be combative."

"I'm fond of him," added the Mississippi Republican, a longtime friend. "I shouldn't be, but I am."

"There's no doubt he's a liberal Democrat, and he's proud of being a liberal Democrat," said Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins, who worked with him on the Violence Against Women Act. Congress passed a reauthorization of that 1994 law last week and sent it to the White House. "But it's in a principled way," Collins said of Leahy's style, "and there's nothing mean-spirited about it. He wants to get things done, so he works with everyone."

Some in Washington were surprised that Leahy opted to keep his Judiciary post rather than take over the Appropriations Committee chairmanship, one of the most coveted seats in Congress and one that he once pursued. The chairmanship was left vacant with Inouye's passing last year; Maryland Democratic Sen. Barbara Mikulski now holds the post.

Leahy's pragmatism will be on prominent display as the Judiciary panel this week begins writing gun-control legislation, a back-burner issue until the massacre of 20 first-graders and six adults at a school in Newtown, Conn., in December.

While Leahy says he wants Congress to expand background checks and take a tougher line against gun trafficking, he has been less clear about whether he will also push to ban assault weapons -- which he has voted for in the past -- or high capacity magazines. Proposals to ban assault weapons and magazines that hold more than 10 bullets enjoy less support in the Senate than proposals for expanded background checks and a strict federal prohibition against gun trafficking.

Leahy, who target shoots on his Vermont farm, is from a state with a strong gun-rights tradition.

"It is so hard to find out what works best," Leahy said in a recent telephone interview with The Associated Press. "Every state is different. What works (in Vermont) is not going to work in Chicago or New York City. How do we balance that?"

It's not Leahy's first balancing act. He's often tangled with Republicans in battles over Supreme Court and other judicial nominees over the years. Leahy was a leader in the Judiciary Committee's investigation into the mass firings of U.S. attorneys during the Bush administration.