In a surprise move, U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said Wednesday he's turned down a chance to head the Senate's most powerful committee.
Since the death of Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) Monday, Beltway prognosticators (and this lowly Vermont reporter) have assumed Leahy would succeed Inouye as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, which holds the nation's purse strings. Instead, Leahy announced Wednesday that he'd stay put at the top of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
"Chairing the Judiciary Committee and maintaining my seniority on the Appropriations Committee will allow me to protect both the Constitution and Vermont," Leahy said in a written statement.
According to spokesman David Carle, "It's been a difficult decision, but the choice in the end was clear to him... He'll continue to be able to do as much or more on Appropriations as senior member while chairing the Senate's busiest committee, Judiciary."
Carle noted that, in the next Congress, the Judiciary Committee will be handling everything from potential Supreme Court vacancies to comprehensive immigration reform to the response to last Friday's school shootings in Newtown, Connecticut.
Leahy noted via Twitter Wednesday that his decision to stay put elevates Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) as the first female chair of the Appropriations Committee. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who is more senior than Mikulski, apparently opted to remain chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
Interestingly, Leahy would have been succeeded as the head of the Judiciary Committee by virulently anti-gun Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.) just before the committee takes up whatever legislation President Obama offers in response to the Newtown shootings. Leahy has been considerably more amenable to gun rights over the years.
Asked if Leahy's decision to eschew Appropriations means he won't be able to secure as much federal funding for Vermont as he might have, Carle said, "He's been able to do that for many, many years in a senior position on Appropriations."
Leahy was sworn in Tuesday as Senate President Pro Tempore, a ceremonial position Inouye also held.