WASHINGTON – He's known for prowling the Capitol with his camera or friends like the rock icon Bono. He's played leading roles in fights over Supreme Court nominations, government surveillance of Americans and protecting his state's dairy farms.
Now, Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont is stepping into one of his most visible and physically grueling roles: presiding over former President Donald Trump's second Senate impeachment trial. Leahy, the Senate's longest-serving current member, will be doing it after a brief health scare that saw him taken by ambulance to a hospital Tuesday evening, only to gavel the Senate into order Wednesday morning.
“I had some muscle spasms," Leahy, 80, told reporters the morning after feeling ill in his Capitol office. He was taken to nearby George Washington University Hospital and went home shortly afterward.
He, aides and colleagues have revealed little about what happened. Leahy said doctors gave him a clean bill of health, and his spokesperson, David Carle, said Leahy “will still preside" when Trump's latest impeachment proceedings begin next month.
The Leahy that America will see when the trial begins walks Congress' hallways amiably but more slowly than when he was first elected at age 34. A longtime skier, target shooter and photographer despite being almost blind in one eye — he won't say which — he is the product of a long Senate run.
He's among a handful of senators who has voted on the nomination of every current Supreme Court justice, backing the three Democratic appointees and opposing the Republican picks except for Chief Justice John Roberts. He's tried banning landmines, hence his friendship with fellow landmine opponent Bono, and helped shape legislation on gun control, privacy rights, government surveillance and patents.
He's a Batman fanatic who's appeared in some of the genre's films and a Grateful Dead aficionado who wears ties designed by its lead guitarist, Jerry Garcia.
Entering his 47th year in the chamber, the man who will oversee Trump's trial on a charge of inciting the Jan. 6 insurrection is the last of the so-called “Watergate Babies,” the congressional Democrats carried into office in 1974 after President Richard Nixon resigned in disgrace to avoid impeachment.
Leahy has chaired committees that run the political gamut, from the intensely partisan Judiciary Committee to the largely bipartisan Agriculture and Appropriations panels. Long the top Democrat on Appropriations, Leahy this year became chair of the committee, which controls well over $1 trillion in annual spending.
“Is he a Democrat? Absolutely. Is he a liberal Democrat? Yes. But I think he’s honest and fair," said Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, an 86-year-old Republican who's worked closely for decades with Leahy on the Appropriations panel.
Leahy “takes the issue of the law and justice very, very seriously,” said his Vermont colleague, independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, who as mayor of Burlington, the state's largest city, got to know Leahy four decades ago. Citing Leahy's early years as a Vermont prosecutor, Sanders said, “Everybody regardless of your opinion on impeachment will end up thinking he did a good job."
Leahy declined to say whether he will seek a ninth term in 2022, saying he'll decide that with his wife, Marcelle, late this year, “when we start skiing and snowshoeing.”
Leahy is accustomed to long Senate hours. He and Shelby worked frequent evenings last year as congressional leaders fashioned a package exceeding $2 trillion that provided COVID-19 relief, financed federal programs for a year and averted a federal shutdown.
But impeachment trials are exhausting ordeals for senators, beyond the political pressures they present. Rules require lawmakers to attend each session, a rarity for a Senate more accustomed to a nearly empty chamber, and spend hours in their seats without the usual wandering to chat or take breaks.
That can be a tribulation for anyone, let alone a 100-member legislative body that includes 26 senators who are 70 or older and five who are at least 80.
Carle, Leahy's spokesperson, said Senate leaders have been discussing the trial process, and it is “likely to be limited in duration.” Trump's first impeachment trial lasted almost three weeks. He was acquitted of trying to force Ukraine in 2019 to investigate his then-Democratic challenger Joe Biden by withholding promised funding.
Leahy “takes real care of his health," said his former chief of staff Luke Albee. Albee predicted that the senator would be able to handle the job, adding, "He is 80 years old. I'm sure it will be a challenge. And if he's not up to it, he'd say something.”
Sanders and Shelby both said that they'd spoken to Leahy on Wednesday and that he seemed ready to plunge ahead. “He now knows 80 million Americans care deeply about his health,” Albee joked, referring to the votes that carried Biden to his November defeat of Trump.
Leahy will preside as Senate president pro tempore, a largely ceremonial post that usually goes to the majority party's longest-serving member. It puts him third in the line of presidential succession.
The health of every senator is a major political concern in a 50-50 Senate, which Democrats control because of the tiebreaking vote of Vice President Kamala Harris.
“I’m glad he’s back," Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said of Leahy. "But it’s also a reminder in an equally divided Senate how quickly things could change.”
Under the Constitution, states decide how to fill Senate vacancies, and Vermont lets its governor make an interim appointment until an election is set. Easing Democrats' fears, Republican Gov. Phil Scott told reporters Wednesday that if anything happened to Leahy, he would appoint a Democrat to replace him, adding, “We all have an obligation to tone down the partisanship.”
Associated Press writer Wilson Ring contributed to this report from Stowe, Vt.
This story has been corrected to show that Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama is 86, not 87.