Sen. Patrick Leahy decided on Wednesday against taking the top position with the Senate Appropriations Committee, a traditionally coveted spot, to continue as chair of the Judiciary Committee.
The appropriations chairmanship became open after the chamber’s longest-serving member, Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), died on Monday at age 88. Leahy, a Vermont Democrat who has served since 1975, then became the Senate’s president pro tempore, putting him third in line for the presidency, after Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and House Speaker John Boehner.
Leahy said Wednesday he would forgo the post with the powerful Appropriations Committee, which decides how federal funds should be spent. Instead, he will remain the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, which oversees the Justice Department and courts and various constitutional issues. He also retains a spot as a senior member of the Appropriations Committee, which will now be chaired by Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), the first woman to do so.
“Chairing the Judiciary Committee and maintaining my seniority on the Appropriations Committee will allow me to protect both the Constitution and Vermont,” Leahy said in a very brief statement.
The Judiciary Committee is likely to see its share of critical issues in the next year’s Congress. After the deadly school shooting in Newtown, Conn., President Barack Obama appointed a team to gather recommendations on how to battle gun violence. Legislative proposals will surely go before the Judiciary Committee.
Earlier on Wednesday, Leahy chaired a hearing on voting problems that came to light in the Nov. 6 election. He gave a vigorous defense of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, saying it “continues to be an effective and necessary tool for protecting voting rights against modern day barriers to voting.”
The Supreme Court has taken up a challenge to the act and could hand down a decision next year. Leahy, in his opening remarks, noted the importance of the committee to oversee the act’s continued reauthorization.
“Our work in 2006 to reinvigorate and reauthorize the Voting Rights Act stood in stark contrast to the tremendous resistance and bitter politics which met the initial enactment of that landmark law,” he said. “This Committee played a key role.”
He continued: “I look forward to exploring at this hearing and in the months ahead how we can ensure that the abusive practices we saw in the recent election are never repeated… The Voting Rights Act transformed America by ushering the nation out of a history of discrimination into an era of greater inclusion. We must not turn away from our commitment to the right to vote for all Americans.”