MONTPELIER, Vt. – Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont said Monday he won't seek reelection next year to the seat he's held since 1975, signaling an end to a career that's included major roles on issues such as civil liberties and financing the government and that began before four of his current colleagues were born.
“It’s time to come home,” said Leahy, 81. He made the announcement in the Vermont State House, blocks from where he grew up.
The decision by Leahy, among the Senate's more liberal members, marks the end of a political era. He’s the last of the so-called Watergate babies, the surge of congressional Democrats elected in 1974 after President Richard Nixon resigned to avoid impeachment.
He's also among a dwindling group from a more collegial era when senators had more harmonious relationships despite ideological differences. Among those is Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., now one of Congress' sharpest partisans, who's served alongside Leahy for over three decades and praised him warmly as "an all-time Senate institution."
Leahy became the first Democrat facing reelection next year in the 50-50 Senate to say he'll retire. His state has shifted from solidly Republican to deep blue while he's been senator, and his seat seems securely in Democratic hands.
He chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, which injects him into this fall's budget fight. He was chair or top Democrat on the Judiciary committee for two decades and was atop the Agriculture panel for 10 years. But inside the Capitol, he's equally known as a photography buff who wanders the corridors with a camera slung around his neck and for shepherding around celebrities including members of his beloved Grateful Dead.
In keeping with his hobby, Leahy took pictures at the White House on Monday as President Joe Biden signed the $1 trillion infrastructure bill. He told reporters that Biden, a Senate colleague for decades, "was kind enough to call me at home” over the weekend, but he declined to provide details.
Leahy is the longest-serving sitting senator, and by the time his term expires in January 2023, he'll have served for 48 years, the third-longest tenure ever. He's the fifth-oldest current senator, among six 80-somethings in the chamber who include his Vermont colleague Bernie Sanders, 80.
Sens. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., Josh Hawley, R-Mo., Jon Ossoff, D-Ga., and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., were born after Leahy entered the Senate.
Atop the Senate Appropriations Committee, Leahy has followed that panel's tradition and worked closely with senior Republican Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama as it distributes hundreds of billions of dollars among federal agencies and to lawmakers' states. But the process has devolved into an annual struggle to prevent federal shutdowns as the two parties fight over federal borrowing and other issues.
“We're different. We've got different political philosophies," Shelby, 87 and also retiring, said in an interview. Shelby said his and Leahy's goal is to fund the government “and we have to do that working together."
Leahy will leave the chamber after eight terms with a record of promoting human rights, working to ban land mines and championing the environment.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, he helped write the 2001 Patriot Act, which strengthened government surveillance capabilities and criminal penalties against convicted terrorists, even as he helped limit its intrusions into civil liberties. More recently, he worked on legislation aimed at curbing the government's ability to get Americans' private telephone data.
He's one of the few senators who have voted on the nomination of every current Supreme Court justice, supporting all three Democratic nominees and opposing every GOP pick except for Chief Justice John Roberts. He's helped write bills on gun control, patents and land mines, which led to his friendship with rock musician Bono, a fellow land mine opponent whom he's shown around the Capitol.
An ardent Batman fan, Leahy has appeared briefly in five Batman movies, telling the Joker in “The Dark Knight” in 2008, “We’re not intimidated by thugs.”
And he's given Capitol tours to members of the Grateful Dead, the classic rock group he followed for decades and whose concerts he sometimes attended on stage. He's said that while onstage once, he took a call from an official who unwittingly asked him to lower his radio so he could talk to President Bill Clinton.
“Would I call myself a Deadhead? With pride,” Leahy once said.
As the longest-serving member of the Senate's majority party, Leahy is that chamber's president pro tempore. That largely ceremonial post makes him third in line to the presidency, after Vice President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
It was in that role that Leahy presided last February over the second impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump. Leahy was hospitalized briefly the evening before the trial after not feeling well, was sent home and gaveled the proceedings to order the next morning.
Leahy is the only Democrat to have ever served as a Vermont senator, though his colleague Sanders, an independent, caucuses with the Democrats. Yet Democrats' hold on Leahy's seat next year became even stronger Monday after GOP Gov. Phil Scott, viewed as his party's strongest potential challenger, seemed to take himself out of the running.
“Governor Scott has been clear that he is not running for the U.S. Senate next year. That has not changed,” Scott’s press secretary Jason Maulucci said by email. Scott, who frequently clashed with Trump, in a statement called Leahy an “incredible champion for Vermonters.”
Many in Vermont think Democratic Rep. Peter Welch, the tiny state's only House member, will want to replace Leahy. Welch issued a statement praising him but saying nothing about running.
Democrats control the 50-50 Senate because of Harris' tiebreaking vote, making every seat crucial in next year's election.
But the GOP is defending 20 seats to Democrats' 14. Of the five announced GOP retirees, three are in states that seem competitive — North Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania. One Republican senator who's not yet announced whether he'll seek reelection is Ron Johnson from Wisconsin, a swing state.
Fram reported from Washington. Ring reported from Stowe, Vt. Associated Press writer Colleen Long contributed to this report from Washington.