Bucking a president they support and a party with which they caucus, Vermont's U.S. Senate delegation cast two of just three liberal votes against Central Intelligence Agency director nominee John Brennan Thursday afternoon.
In so doing, Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT) made strange bedfellows with a group of conservative Republicans and libertarians who sought to block Brennan's nomination due to concerns with the Obama administration's drone program.
The vote came a day after Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) captivated the Capitol with a 13-hour, talking filibuster seeking to stall Brennan's nomination.
Leahy and Sanders joined Oregon Democrat Jeff Merkley and 31 Republicans in opposing Obama's CIA pick, while 13 Republicans joined the Democratic majority to vote 63 to 34 in favor of Brennan's confirmation.
The votes were reversals for both Leahy and Sanders. The former said in January that he'd back Brennan, before indicating to Seven Days on Wednesday that he was considering opposing him. Sanders, in contrast, told the paper that day he planned to support Brennan — before evidently changing his mind.
Asked during an interview in his Capitol Hill office Wednesday whether he expected to vote for Brennan, Sanders said, "I do, yah, with reluctance, but I will."
Explaining that reluctance, Sanders said, "I have concerns about this drone business. We've gotten a little bit more information. It's an issue that I will stay on."
Those concerns apparently grew overnight.
After casting his nay vote on Thursday, Sanders said in a written statement, "With regard to the use of drones and other methods employed by the Central Intelligence Agency, I am not convinced that Mr. Brennan is adequately sensitive to the important balancing act required to make protecting our civil liberties an integral part of ensuring our national security."
Sanders' staff declined to answer questions about his reversal Thursday.
Sen. Patrick Leahy
While also related to drones, Leahy's rationale for opposing Brennan was somewhat more parochial. He told Seven Days during an interview in the Capitol Thursday that it was motivated by frustration that the Obama administration had provided the Senate Intelligence Committee with access to secret memos authorizing drone strikes against American citizens abroad — but not the Senate Judiciary Committee, which he chairs.
"I've been briefed on what's in the memo, but I want to see what's in the memo. I'm a lawyer. I want to see it myself. I want to read the citations," Leahy said. "And I think because I am a friend of the president's and I've been very supportive, I think they took [my vote] for granted. And this is one way of getting their attention. So I'm hoping— I'm hoping they'll pay attention."
He added, "I'm sure I'll be getting a call from Brennan."
Leahy said he'd spoken with Obama about the issue earlier Thursday before the president signed Leahy-sponsored legislation reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act, but the senator declined to disclose the nature of their conversation. Leahy did say Attorney General Eric Holder had assured him he would receive access to the memo.
Leahy's staff said they believed this was the first time he had opposed an Obama nominee. Sanders has opposed several members of Obama's economic team, including the president's new treasury secretary, Jacob Lew.
As for his Kentucky colleague's lengthy filibuster, Leahy sounded none too impressed.
"I know Sen. Paul is running for president," he said. "If he wanted to win on the issue, he could've kept the filibuster going, but he has his rights just like anyone else."