Sen. Patrick Leahy speaks to reporters at Burlington International Airport
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) returned home from Washington, D.C., Friday afternoon on "less than an hour" of sleep. He had been up until the wee hours of the morning for a dramatic vote on the fate of the Affordable Care Act.
Like his district-mate, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Leahy was among the 51 senators to oppose Republicans' last-ditch repeal measure.
The senior senator was clearly fatigued as he held a press conference at the Burlington International Airport. "I wore a tie only because you guys are here," he told reporters. "Halfway to Middlesex, this tie is gonna be off, let me tell you."
It had been a long, long night, to be sure. But Leahy had borne a heavier burden than most, due to his long friendship with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who had cast the deciding vote against his own party's bill.
Leahy and McCain have known each other for more than 30 years and have bonded over — of all things — skin cancer. Both McCain and Leahy's wife, Marcelle, are skin cancer survivors who have had to maintain constant vigilance against the disease's return. And now McCain is in the fight of his life against brain cancer.
The Arizona Republican's vote early Friday morning was a bit anticlimactic for Vermont's senior senator. "Many of us had talked with him," Leahy said. "Those of us who knew him well knew how he was going to vote."
For Leahy, the real emotional moment came on Tuesday, when McCain returned to the Senate only 10 days after undergoing the surgery that revealed his cancer.
"He walked out. We were thrilled to see him," Leahy recalled after pausing to collect his thoughts. "He was having a difficult time. I went over and hugged him, and you could just feel the weight he'd lost. The speech he gave, one of the most moving and memorable. But all I could think of was, it was a farewell speech."
"He's always kept his word to me, and I have to him. Some things we agree on, some we disagree on. But you know, he's a good man," Leahy said. "And I'm hoping that some people on both sides of the aisle will say, 'Let's be grownups.'"
Sanders, who has refused Seven Days' interview requests for 27 months, did not respond to a request for comment Friday. His office posted on Facebook an early-morning video of the senator addressing a crowd of anti-repeal protesters outside the Capitol.
"Tonight was a victory for the American people," Sanders told the crowd. "It was a victory for 15 million people who would have been thrown off of health care. It was a victory for people who will not have to pay a 20 percent increase in their premiums. But tonight is just the first start. We've got a long way to go, and our goal must be to join the rest of the industrialized world and guarantee health care for every man, woman and child in this country."
Gov. Phil Scott was unavailable for an interview Friday, according to spokesperson Rebecca Kelley. In a written statement, Scott said that the Senate "did the right thing last night."
"But what we really need is bipartisan collaboration on health care reform — they shouldn't repeat the mistake of forcing a party line vote on the [Affordable Care Act]," he said. "We need leaders in Washington to come together to find a solution to this problem ... and I will continue to pursue opportunities on this front."
It must be pointed out that the "mistake of forcing a party line vote" on the ACA in 2010 came after months of Republican refusals to take part in the process — and months of Democratic offers of compromise. That's a far cry from the rushed, secretive process the Republicans pursued this year, when Democrats were given no opportunity to take an active role.
In any case, Leahy agreed with Scott on the need for bipartisan collaboration on health care reform.
"Why don't we go back and find what works and keep it?" he said. "If there are parts that don't work, then change it ... We can do that. Same thing with Medicare. We can do it."
Leahy didn't say it in so many words, but the implication was there: If this is farewell for John McCain, a return to the Senate's bipartisan traditions would be a fitting memorial.