State News

Leahy and Sanders take center stage in U.S. Senate

By Kit Norton/VTDigger

Hours after Joe Biden was sworn in as president, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., was sworn in as president pro tempore of the Senate, placing him third in line for the presidency.

Leahy, 80, was escorted to the front of the Senate chamber by incoming Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, whom he replaced as pro tem. After Vice President Kamala Harris administered Leahy’s oath of office, the two switched seats and the senator from Vermont took over as presiding officer.

Leahy held the position from 2012 to 2015.

Though the pro tem position is largely ceremonial, Leahy will soon find himself presiding over the expected Senate trial of former president Donald Trump.

The U.S. Constitution calls for the chief justice of the Supreme Court to preside over trials of sitting presidents, but there is no precedent for an ex-president to face such a proceeding. In the past, senators have presided over impeachment trials of other federal officers.

On Monday, Jan. 25, Chief Justice John Roberts officially bowed out, and  Vice President Kamala Harris has a conflict of interest as she was part of the election, so Leahy — the top officer in the Senate — will preside.

Tom Sullivan, a political science professor at the University of Vermont who specializes in constitutional law, said Leahy is a logical choice for the position in Roberts’ absence.

“He is kind of natural for this,” Sullivan said. “He is highly regarded in the Senate by both parties and, given his experience as longtime chair of the judiciary committee, I think he knows his role very well.”

The U.S. Senate’s impeachment trial of former president Donald Trump will begin early next month.

Leahy is also the chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Vermont’s junior senator, Bernie Sanders, an independent, assumed a powerful position as chair of the Senate Budget Committee.

John Hudak, a congressional politics expert at the Brookings Institute, said both of Vermont’s U.S. senators are likely to play “significant roles” in shepherding Biden’s agenda into law, and both will have a chance to push their own policy priorities.

Leahy has already had multiple discussions with Biden about spending priorities, the Senator said, and specifically an expected Covid-19 aid package. The two men entered the Senate within two years of each other — Biden in 1973 and Leahy in 1975 — and have a strong friendship.

Leahy said he intends to convene a private meeting of the Appropriations Committee to discuss how to pass top priorities.

For Vermont, Leahy said he would make sure any coronavirus relief bill gave states with small populations a minimum level of funding. He did the same with last year’s CARES Act, which provided Vermont $1.25 billion — more per capita than any state other than Wyoming.

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