WASHINGTON, Dec. 19, 2012 – Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., was sworn in Tuesday by Vice President Joe Biden as president pro tempore of the United States Senate, putting him third in the line of presidential succession after the vice president and the speaker of the House. He fills the vacancy created by the death of Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hawaii, Monday at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.
But in a surprising move today, Leahy chose not to exercise his seniority to take Inouye’s place as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee and to remain Judiciary Committee chairman. His statement said: “Chairing the Judiciary Committee and maintaining my seniority on the Appropriations Committee will allow me to protect both the Constitution and Vermont.”
His decision would have cleared the way for Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, to claim the top position on the Appropriations Committee. But Harkin also passed on the opportunity, electing to remain chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. Next in seniority on Appropriations is Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., who last year became the longest serving woman in U.S. Senate history. She expects to be handed the Appropriations Committee gavel during a Democratic caucus meeting on Thursday.
"It is especially gratifying to be the first woman to lead this powerful committee," Mikulski said in a statement. "I am grateful for this opportunity to fight for the day-to-day needs of the American people and the long-range needs of the nation."
Leahy, who chaired the Senate Agriculture Committee from 1987 through 1994, led the fight that led to the enactment of the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, which governs USDA organic regulations. He also is the architect of two major dairy programs that were targeted to small-scale dairy farmers – the Northeast Interstate Dairy Compact, which raised milk prices in New England between to 1985, and the Milk Income Loss Contract program, which made deficiency payments to dairy farmers, limited to the output of about 150 cows.
Had he relinquished the Judiciary Committee chair, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., would have had seniority to succeed him and would have been expected to use the position to advance legislation that would ban assault weapons and potentially other restrictions.
The president pro tem since 1948 traditionally has been the most senior senator in the party that controls the Senate. Leahy, 72, was elected in 1974 and is completing his 38th year in the Senate. His main duty is to preside over the Senate in the absence of the vice president, who also is President of the Senate, but typically the presiding officer’s role is delegated to junior members.
In the unlikely event that the president, vice president and speaker were unable to serve, the president pro tem is next in line to become president, followed by the secretary of state and other members of the Cabinet in order of the creation of their departments. The secretaries of the treasury and defense are next, followed by the attorney general and, the secretaries of the interior and agriculture, and then the heads of the departments formed after 1900.
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