Sen. Patrick Leahy enjoys lunch with his wife, Marcelle, at the Brattleboro Food Co-op, Friday.(Zachary P. Stephens/Brattleboro Reformer)
Sen. Patrick Leahy enjoys lunch with his wife, Marcelle, at the Brattleboro Food Co-op, Friday. (Zachary P. Stephens/Brattleboro Reformer)
Saturday March 16, 2013

BRATTLEBORO -- After almost 40 years in the U.S. Senate there is not too much Patrick Leahy has not seen.

As chairman of the Judiciary Committee he has played a role in confirming Supreme Court justices, and over the years he has sponsored legislation ranging from organic agriculture to freedom of information to banning land mines.

Leahy currently finds himself embroiled in hot button issues like immigration, gun violence and drones, and he has appeared on stage and screen with Batman and Jerry Garcia.

But nothing has prepared the 72-year-old U.S. Senator for giving up the satisfaction of having his beloved wife, Marcelle, drive him to the grocery store.

Leahy's life changed on Dec. 17, 2012 when Hawaii Sen. Daniel Inouye died, leaving Leahy the Senate President pro tempore, and third in line to succeed the President of the United States after the Vice President and Speaker of the House.

And with that comes daily briefings, 24-hour Secret Service protection and drivers who have taken the steering wheel out of the hands of his wife.

The Leahys can no longer get in a car at their home in Middlesex and drive into town, stopping to chat with any old friend who stops them.

While eating lunch at the Brattleboro Food Co-op Friday, serious-looking men and women with dark suits and earpieces stood at attention.

It's a big change for Leahy, the Vermont Senator who is used to walking the state's main streets with only a staff member or two by his side.

"After Senator Inouye passed on they asked me when they could come out to our house to set up security, and I said, ‘I don't want it,'" Leahy said. "They said, ‘How about for the midnight shift, and do you prefer they pick you up?' and I said, ‘I don't want it.' I said, ‘Do I have choice?' And they said, ‘No.'"

Leahy shrugs off the additional pomp and responsibility that comes with being the most senior member of the Senate.

He is busy enough, he said, heading the Judiciary Committee and battling the Tea Party, and extreme right wing of the Republican Party.

Last week he helped pass the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, successfully fighting against Republican-led amendments that would have limited the rights of LGBT, immigrant and Native American victims.

Before he left Washington Thursday, he completed work on four gun violence bills, and he expects to take up immigration reform in the busy Judiciary Committee in the coming weeks.

Still, for someone who is approaching his 40th year in Washington, the changes have taken some getting used to.

While in a Washington grocery store recently a friend came up and noticed all the Secret Service standing around.

"She asked if someone important was here," Leahy joked. "I said, ‘It beats the heck out of me.'"

He gets daily CIA and security briefings, more than he wants, he says, and he jokes that he now prays twice a day for President Obama's health and safety, along with the health and safety of Joe Biden and John Boehner.

"The only thing that gave me pause, is that they sat me down at one of those briefings to get the password I need to get the nuclear codes if all hell broke loose," he said. "In one hour I went from being a Senator from Vermont to being told you were going to be Senate pro tem. It's nothing I ever aspired to."

Leahy was first elected to the U.S. Senate in 1974, when he succeeded Sen. George Aiken, from Putney, who was then the longest-serving Vermont Senator.

He says he is not yet thinking about his next election in 2016, though he points out that Aiken was 84 when he left the Senate.

"I haven't been thinking about it. I really haven't," Leahy said. "I don't need to set any records. I never thought I was going to be President pro tem of the Senate."

Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at hwtisman@reformer.com, or 802-254-2311, ext. 279. You can follow him on Twitter @HowardReformer.