Not long before U.S. Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) was unseated in a primary election last week, the veteran member of Congress faced intense scrutiny over his absence from New York during the coronavirus pandemic. The Atlanticreported in May that Engel hadn’t visited his district in the Bronx and Westchester County — one of the hardest-hit districts in the country — since March.
Vermont’s senior senator, it turns out, has been hunkered down in the Capitol even longer.
According to spokesperson David Carle, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) has not set foot in Vermont since January 4. “Never in my life have I been gone this long. Both Marcelle and I are homesick,” Leahy said in an interview, referring to his spouse.
So what’s kept him from his native Green Mountains? Leahy, who is 80, cited a busy congressional schedule, Marcelle's health concerns and, most of all, a dearth of broadband at his house in Middlesex.
“Some of this time I might’ve just spent at home, but the internet service — even though we pay for the premium one — in Middlesex is not reliable and [is] extraordinarily slow, and I’m doing Zoom calls and meetings,” he said.
In ordinary times, many members of Congress fly home every weekend and stay longer during recesses. The pandemic has scrambled that schedule for all three members of Vermont’s congressional delegation, though each has handled the situation differently.
Since the coronavirus prompted him to cancel his last scheduled presidential campaign rally on March 10, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has spent most of his time at his Burlington home.
After returning to Washington, D.C., in late March to vote for a major coronavirus relief package, he skipped town until June 9, missing 33 consecutive roll-call votes. According to spokesperson Keane Bhatt, Sanders resumed flying from Burlington to D.C. each week in June.
Since suspending his presidential campaign on April 8, Sanders has missed 75 percent of the 48 roll-call votes the Senate has held. In that same period, Leahy missed 25 percent.
All of Leahy's missed votes were on the confirmations of judges and lower-level administration officials. In the interview, he took umbrage at the notion that he'd missed too many votes, noting that he'd taken more than any but the late senators Robert Byrd and Strom Thurmond. "I don't think anybody else in the history of the country has cast as many votes as I have," he said.
Leahy himself was a chief architect of the FISA reforms. "There were senators missing and it failed by one vote," he said of the amendment. "Every single vote counted." Asked whether he was disappointed that Sanders was among the no-shows, Leahy claimed he hadn't been aware that Sanders had missed the vote. "I didn't realize he did," the senior senator said. "He can speak for himself."
Bhatt did not respond to a question about Sanders' attendance record.
The third member of Vermont's delegation, U.S. Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.), hasn’t missed a roll-call vote since February 13, though House rules have made it easier for him to legislate from his Norwich home.
When the House approved the coronavirus relief package in late March, it did so by voice vote — and Welch remained in Vermont. He flew to D.C. once in April and once in May, according to spokesperson Lincoln Peek, and has been able to vote by proxy from Vermont during the six weeks since — a system the Senate has declined to adopt.
"He decided to use the proxy system to mitigate his potential exposure to COVID-19 and to protect his community in Vermont from his potential exposure," Peek explained.
Though Leahy's offices in Vermont and D.C. have been closed for months and his staff have been working remotely, the senator said he sometimes conducts business from his perch in the U.S. capitol. Otherwise, he does so from his home in McLean, Va., where he has lived since 1978.
One reason for his long stay in D.C., Leahy said, was the raft of business before the Senate Appropriations Committee, of which he is vice chair, and the Senate Judiciary Committee, of which he is the longest-serving member. He and Carle cited Trump's impeachment trial in January, various judicial nomination fights, negotiations around coronavirus relief and the FISA reforms.
"We also had the logistics," Leahy said. "If I got home — remember, I'm working every single day, usually seven days a week — if I got home, I don't really have reliable internet service or cell phone service so I can do these things. I'm not going to the [Vermont] offices. My offices are closed. Marcelle's health is such that she should not be flying, and I'm not going to leave her down here alone."
Leahy said he missed attending church in Vermont and bumping into friends and constituents at the grocery store. The good news, he said, was that his six-month absence would soon come to an end.
“We’re coming up this weekend,” Leahy said. “We’re going to drive up.”