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Sen. Patrick Leahy, 81, longest-serving member of chamber now in office, announces he will retire

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, the longest serving member of the Senate, announced on Nov. 15 that he would not seek reelection. (Video: The Washington Post)

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), the longest-serving member in the Senate, announced Monday that he will retire at the end of his term rather than run for reelection next year.

Leahy, 81, who was first elected in 1974, would have been up for reelection to a ninth term in 2022.

“It’s time to put down the gavel. It is time to pass the torch to the next Vermonter to carry on this work for our great state. It’s time to come home,” Leahy said at a news conference Monday at the Vermont State House in Montpelier from the same room where he announced his first Senate candidacy.

During his news conference, Leahy outlined what he considered to be some of the highlights of his career, including making school lunches available to lower-income children, reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act and “fiercely” advocating for civil liberties. He said he was proud of his long service and that he had worked to deliver the “good judgment and hard work” that Vermonters expect.

“I know my time in the Senate has made a difference for Vermonters, and I hope often well beyond,” Leahy said. When he finished speaking, he embraced his wife, Marcelle, as they received rousing, sustained applause.

In an interview Monday, Leahy told The Washington Post that he and his family spent time at his Vermont farm over Labor Day weekend, taking walks and talking about his future. He made the final call about a month ago and began planning his announcement with senior staff and, eventually, in a long call over the weekend with President Biden, with whom he served 36 years in the Senate and sat near on the Judiciary Committee.

Biden did not try to change his mind, Leahy said, and instead focused on old times and the fun of serving together.

“Just like old colleagues,” Leahy said.

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Leahy is chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee and president pro tempore of the Senate, making him third in the line of succession to the presidency. In floor remarks Monday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) called Leahy “a Senate institution in his own right” and said it would be hard to imagine the Senate without him.

Vermont, where Biden won with 66 percent of the vote last year, has not been represented in the U.S. Senate by a Republican since 2001. The state’s current junior senator is Independent Bernie Sanders, 80, a self-described democratic socialist who caucuses with the Democrats.

“He leaves a unique legacy that will be impossible to match,” Sanders said of Leahy on Monday.

Phil Scott, the state’s governor since 2017, has demonstrated that a Republican can still prevail in a statewide race in Vermont. He was reelected last year with nearly 69 percent of the vote.

Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.), the state’s only congressman, is viewed as Leahy’s most likely successor, and on Monday Leahy praised him as “remarkable.” Welch is 74.

After Leahy’s announcement, Sen. Gary Peters (Mich.), chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, vowed to keep the seat in the Democratic column.

“Senator Leahy is a lion of the Senate. He reflects the very best values of the institution, and through his service he has shaped the direction of our country for the better in countless ways,” Peters said. “Vermont is a blue state that has not elected a Republican to statewide federal office in more than 20 years, and Democrats look forward to winning this Senate seat in 2022.”

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Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) also said he was “confident” Democrats could retain the seat and joked there was only one thing he and Leahy could never agree on: whether New York or Vermont had the best maple syrup.

“Very few in the history of the United States Senate can match the record of Patrick Leahy,” Schumer said. “He has been a guardian of Vermont and more rural states in the Senate, and has an unmatched fidelity to the Constitution and rule of law.”

Leahy became the sixth senator — and first Democrat — to announce that he would retire next year rather than seek reelection. Others leaving the chamber include Sens. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), Richard Burr (R-N.C.), Rob Portman (R-Ohio), Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.) and Patrick J. Toomey (R- Pa.).

Among octogenarians up for reelection, one has announced he is running again: Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), age 88. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), 88, who was just reelected to a fifth term in 2018, said Monday she had served with Leahy for almost 30 years on the Senate Judiciary and Appropriations committees, “long enough to be witness to his integrity and strength of purpose.”

Shelby, 87, who is vice chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, thanked Leahy for his friendship and said he had “served Vermont well and with honor.”

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Congressional career aside, Leahy is also an ardent Batman fan who has made cameos in five Batman movies, arguing that “doing the right thing is more for others than yourself” is a lesson Washington could learn from Bruce Wayne.

Leahy had repeatedly eschewed retirement, telling The Washington Post in 2017 that he had a birthday ritual of going scuba diving, swimming down to the depth of his new age, doing an underwater somersault, then swimming back to the surface.

“If I reach the point that I can’t go scuba diving and do my somersaults, that will be one clear indication [to retire],” Leahy said then.

Leahy was briefly hospitalized in January after presiding over the opening of the second impeachment trial of former president Donald Trump, causing a scare among Democrats who hold a razor-thin majority in the Senate.

Leahy probably gave a strong hint of his pending decision when he announced a book deal with Simon & Schuster, a memoir of his political life with the title — “The Road Taken” — set in the past tense. On Monday, he said the book, to be published next summer, would serve as a 48-year arc of his time in the Senate, pulling together lots of personal notes he took, including hundreds of pages of handwritten observations while he presided over Trump’s February impeachment trial.

Leahy said that decades ago he and his wife had decided that they would retire at a point where he still had good health — and strong enough standing so that he could leave while others said good things about him.

What others say about him should be, according to Leahy, “he could’ve gotten reelected.”

“It’s the right decision,” he told The Post.

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