Two Senators Show How It Really Is Trump
Sen. Patrick Leahy, the last of the "Watergate Babies" in Congress who won election in 1974, didn't want to move from his spot in the Ohio Clock Corridor of the U.S. Capitol a few days back.
Capitol Police and Secret Service agents were clearing the area ahead of President Trump's visit to the Republican caucus lunch, where they waited to hear about his government shutdown strategy.
But the 78-year-old Vermonter and top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee liked where he was, and he felt like chatting. He was standing fast against the glances of young security personnel. And there was Dennis DeConcini, the 81-year-old former senator from Arizona, who wanted to thank Leahy for some advice Leahy's wife had rendered about his health. DeConcini's grandmother and Leahy's grandmother were from the same town in Italy, Leahy explained.
Leahy's bout of pleasant irascibility was my good fortune, since I wanted to talk to Leahy about Nita Lowey -- his counterpart on the other side of the Capitol now in charge of the House Appropriations Committee -- for a Daily News story. Both are in charge of the legislative levers being used by Democrats in the standoff with the septuagenarian president. Leahy gave me a little bit on Lowey, who is DeConcini's age and whom he's known a long time. ("A work horse," he said.)
I wanted to know how he would work with Lowey to make sure the 12 annual spending bills that are supposed to be passed by Congress every year -- but seldom are -- would include House Democratic priorities that would also pass muster with Senate Republicans.
But Leahy is proud of his history working with the top GOP appropriator, 84-year-old Sen. Richard Shelby, of Alabama, and brushed past the House question.
"Yeah, but look at the relationship between me and Shelby," he said.
"Dick and I have worked very close together, and in 20 years or more... every one of the appropriations bills came out nearly unanimously, and in the past year nearly unanimously," Leahy said.
His claim is true. The appropriations process at the committee level has actually been relatively smooth. It's only when the various political agendas roiling the national discourse intervene late in the process that things go off the rails. In the recent past, it's been a momentary fixation on the debt ceiling, and Sen. Ted Cruz's campaign to repeal the Affordable Care Act that gritted up the gears.
This particular barricade of about a quarter of the government's functions is all over Trump's wall, and Leahy is sure that if Trump would get out of the way, even a little, all would be solved.
As if to prove the point that this shutdown is all about Trump, Shelby happened to stroll by just at that moment on his way to listen to the president.
"Dick! Dick! I'm ruining your reputation," Leahy hollered. "I'm saying good things about you."
Shelby detoured from his path to the Mansfield Room. He didn't need to be informed of the topic.
"Well, I'll tell you what. He's been a good friend," Shelby said to me about Leahy. "We don't even fight. Now we differ, but we don't fight. But we could settle our differences. We could settle it."
"We could get this done in two minutes," chimed in Leahy.
The current talking point on the Republican side, even though Democrats have offered Republican-written bills to reopen government, is that Democrats are refusing to negotiate because the one thing they won't back is the symbolic, dubious wall. Shelby was mindful of the GOP position, even as his words explained he would personally prefer not to be an obstacle.
"If the Democratic caucus would let us -- and the Republican caucus -- I bet we could have it done by six o'clock. I bet we would, give or take," Shelby said.
I offered to Shelby that Leahy was not about to agree to Trump's wall. He suggested that his own definition of "wall" was much more expansive. It might even include security measures Democrats support, like drones, surveillance technology and more border agents.
"It's not a question of the wall," Shelby said. "We're talking about a fence, and barricades, or whatever it takes."
Leahy re-offered the Democrats' suggestion to just pass the six funding bills Shelby and Leahy had already passed through their committee, though Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has ruled that out until the president agrees with something.
Shelby didn't offer anything against the idea.
"Hey, we'll work it out," he said. "Take care."
Still not prepared to depart his spot in the path that Trump would take to the lunch, and with security officers still eyeballing us, Leahy decided to explain how he and Shelby travel together, how their wives are friends, and how Leahy got Shelby invited to meet Raul Castro in Cuba.
Shelby's wife, who for years was a professor at Georgetown University, ended up charming the Cuban leader.
"She had taught a number of Cuban students at Georgetown," Leahy said. "Well, Castro wanted to know about that. And he and I had been kinda staring at each other, and I said 'Wouldn't it be nice if our children were here?'"
From there it was exchanges of photos and discussions of grandchildren and great grandchildren that Castro has continued to pursue.
"Sometimes it's the personal things," Leahy said, before eventually heading on his way, not long before Trump made his appearance.