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Strange Bedfellows: Leahy’s Senate Relationships Get Results — Sometimes


Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) listen as Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) speaks during the confirmation hearing of Brett Kavanaugh. - BILL CLARK/CQ ROLL CALL
  • Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call
  • Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) listen as Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) speaks during the confirmation hearing of Brett Kavanaugh.

The U.S. Senate has begun passing spending bills in a bipartisan manner, overcoming years of gridlock that repeatedly brought the government to the brink of a shutdown. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the vice chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, claims this turnaround is due to his seniority and his decades-long friendships with Senate Republicans.

Leahy is the fifth most senior senator in U.S. history, having served for nearly 44 years. He worked for months on fixing the budget process with two of his close Republican friends: Thad Cochran, the former Appropriations chair, and Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), his successor. Cochran represented Mississippi for 40 years before his retirement in April. Shelby has been in the Senate since 1987.

Leahy began talks about the dysfunctional budget process when Cochran was still in the Senate. Afterward, Leahy pursued the matter with Shelby.

"We had conversations at length, the two of us," Leahy said of Shelby. "We talked about how the committee had disintegrated. How do we get it back to where it should be?"

That meant a return to regular order — the traditional process in which appropriations bills, one for each area of government, emerge from committee to be debated and amended on the Senate floor.

"It's no secret that for the past 20 or so years, the appropriations process in Congress has been broken," said Jay Tilton, Leahy's Appropriations Committee press secretary. Spending bills have become magnets for unrelated policy riders, or "poison pills." For example, conservatives have frequently attached provisions to end all funding for Planned Parenthood or toughen immigration policy. The riders made it all but impossible to pass spending bills in regular order.

So Congress has repeatedly flirted with government shutdowns while passing huge bills that include funding for most or all government operations in a single measure with no floor amendments. Congress has also "kicked the can down the road with continuing resolutions, which just continue the previous year's spending decisions without any changes in priorities," said Leahy communications chief David Carle.

Leahy and Shelby worked out a way to restore the Senate's past practice of adopting separate bills for each area of government and allowing debate on the floor. Then they met with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.). "We said, 'We can get these bills through, but we need your support,'" Leahy recalled. "They said, 'OK, if you can do it, we have other things to worry about, so do it.' And we did."

The Shelby-Leahy deal was built on the foundation of a two-year budget agreement negotiated by McConnell and Schumer in February, which removed strict spending caps imposed by Congress in 2011. Shelby and Leahy reached accord on two key points. "They would not move on any appropriations bill if it didn't have bipartisan support," Tilton said. "It had to be free of poison-pill policy riders, and it had to be in line with the bipartisan budget agreement."

With Senate leadership on board, the Republican House, where Tea Party conservatives have significant power, had to be convinced.

"We've had weekends and late nights, meeting with staff and key members of the House, working through all this," said Leahy. "They had all sorts of poison pills. We said, 'We're going to knock 'em out,' and they finally realized we were serious."

Last Thursday, Beltway news outlet the Hill reported that House conservatives are frustrated by their inability to block Senate-passed budget bills. On Friday, President Donald Trump signed a three-bill package to fund the Department of Veterans Affairs, military construction and Energy Department programs through the new fiscal year.

Clearly, a logjam has been broken. "This has transformed the budget process in the Senate," Carle asserted.

Ah, if only it were that simple. This is a fragile accord that could fall apart for a number of reasons. For starters, there's the calendar: The rest of the budget bills would have to be approved by October 1, which is a temporal impossibility. So unless there's a stopgap spending measure by then, a government shutdown is still on the table.

The Senate has approved a bill that includes a full year of funding for defense and labor programs and stopgap funding for the rest of the government. That measure must still pass the House and be signed by Trump — which isn't a sure thing, because it doesn't contain any money for his favorite obsession, a wall along the border between the U.S. and Mexico.

The careful crafting of that bill reveals the fragility of the Leahy/Shelby accord. The measure includes a top Republican priority (defense) and a top Democratic priority (labor), which makes it harder for members of the House to vote no and for Trump to veto the measure. If that kind of tightrope walking is necessary to enact a single appropriations bill, the process is far from secure.

Then there's the question of what happens after the midterms. In campaign season, many Republicans are eager to avoid a shutdown — and to approve politically popular spending measures. Will the accord fall apart after the election, no matter which party wins congressional majorities?

"I think there's a possibility of that," Leahy acknowledged. "Sen. Shelby and I have talked about it, and we have pledged to each other that no matter who's in the majority, whether he's chairman or I'm chairman, we will continue this." Leahy said he has complete confidence in Shelby: "He's never broken his word, and I've never broken mine."

Four years ago, Leahy would have said the same thing about Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee and a longtime friend. After the Democrats lost their Senate majority in 2014, Leahy ceded the Judiciary chairmanship to Grassley. "When Sen. Leahy handed over the gavel to Sen. Grassley," said Carle, "Sen. Grassley gave his word that he intended to continue to protect the Senate's advise and consent role."

Grassley has done no such thing with the Supreme Court nomination of U.S. Appeals Court Judge Brett Kavanaugh. Instead, the Iowa senator has run roughshod over the rules and practices of his committee in an all-out bid to confirm Kavanaugh as quickly as possible.

"He has determined, it appears, that he's going to follow orders from Mitch McConnell," said Leahy of Grassley. "I'm still a good friend of his. This has been disappointing."

And what does that disappointment say about Shelby, that other "man of his word," and his commitment to the new budget process?

It says there are limits to friendship in the Senate, even to keeping one's word. Leahy can produce results through his seniority and his wide circle of friends. But partisanship trumps all of that, if you'll pardon the expression.

One final note. Leahy and Shelby's fruitful meeting with McConnell and Schumer happened only a few months after congressional Republicans rammed through Trump's tax cut bill at the end of 2017. That bill vastly increased the federal deficit, and yet McConnell seemed to have no appetite for the kinds of spending cuts that could have closed the gap — even after Trump produced a budget calling for deep cuts.

Next time you hear a congressional Republican talk about responsible budgeting, remember the words of McConnell as recounted by Leahy: "We have other things to worry about."

Last Elephant Standing

State Rep. Kurt Wright (R-Burlington) is a unique political success story. He's the only Republican member of the Burlington City Council and also its president. And he's the only Queen City Republican in the Vermont House. He's one of two state representatives from the Chittenden 6-1 district, which covers much of the city's New North End, a suburban area with a mix of upscale homes and low- and moderate-income housing.

House Democrats are hoping to erase one of Wright's distinctions on November 6. They believe he's vulnerable in a changing district and hope to take his seat in their drive to win a veto-proof majority in the next legislative session.

Wright is the only Republican on the ballot in Chittenden 6-1. Two Democrats are in the race: first-term incumbent Rep. Carol Ode (D-Burlington) and Bob Hooper, a retired state employee and former president of the Vermont State Employees Association. This is Hooper's second bid for the House; he finished fourth in 2014.

This isn't the first Democratic effort to oust Wright, and they have yet to succeed. Wright has served in the House since 2001. He's finished first in every election but one.

That one time, however, was in 2016. Wright not only came in second, he barely held on to his seat, winning by a mere 67 votes. As further evidence of a changing district, the Dems also cite the 2017 city council election, when New North End voters chose Ali Dieng, a Democrat/Progressive. Democrats see Wright as out of step with a district that's becoming younger and more ethnically diverse.

"I notice that," said Hooper, when asked if Chittenden 6-1 is changing. He welcomes the increased diversity. "It's good to have such rich communities within our city."

Ode says the changing population doesn't necessarily mean a shift in politics. "The economy and quality of life, we're all concerned about," she said. "Whether lifelong resident or New American, they care about family, kids, neighborhoods, schools, health care and jobs."

As the sole Burlington Republican in a heavily Democratic legislature, Wright argues that he provides much-needed balance. "We've had one party dominate the legislature for a decade and a half," he noted. Retaining the GOP caucus' ability to uphold gubernatorial vetoes, he added, is "critical."

At the same time, he doesn't want to be seen as too Republican. "I'm a centrist, independent-minded Republican," he said. "I think people will understand that."

Unsurprisingly, neither Hooper nor Ode think much of the "balance" argument.

"Every person is unique and brings different experiences and talents," Ode said. "To say one person will bring more balance than another, I don't see it. I'm supporting Bob."

Hooper takes it a step further, claiming that "balance" misses the crucial point: Getting things done for the district. "I could go there as a member of the majority party," he said. "You're one of the players on the field, not in the stands throwing peanuts."

Conventional wisdom says 2018 could be a bad year for Republicans, with liberal voters highly engaged — and often enraged — by the Trump presidency. Wright sees it differently. "No question the 2016 election was close," he said. "I survived, because I've been around and earned enough loyalty from the voters. I'm better off this time without Trump."

That's certainly an optimistic reading, but it fits a guy who's been beating the odds his entire political career. And for Democrats hoping to finally knock him off, Wright offers a lesson from history.

"My district is famous for splitting its ticket," he said. Indeed, he has shared the podium with a Democrat nine straight times. If this election follows tradition, then Wright will continue to be the last elephant standing in deep-blue Burlington.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Strange Bedfellows"