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Canada's best friend in Washington strikes again

He's third in line for the U.S. presidency, he's a grandfather who absolutely loves the Grateful Dead. And as of today, you can add this gushing title to the resume of Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy -- Canada's best friend in Washington.

How else to describe the veteran Democratic senator's efforts Thursday during proceedings of the all-important Senate Appropriations Committee, where Leahy swatted down for a third (and hopefully final) time a plan to impose border-crossing fees on vehicles entering the States?

Altogether now, Canada: Yeahy for Leahy. And a friendly nod also to his Republican counterpart, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, who followed Leahy's lead in torpedoing the plan.

The Star has reported previously on the Department of Homeland Security's ongoing efforts to download spiralling security costs in the form of border fees herehere and also here. The idea would mean a direct hit on every carload of Canadians heading south, even if only for a few hours of cross-border shopping.

Plenty of politicos on both sides of the border detest the DHS fee concept. But Leahy has been singularly aggressive on the issue. He's written directly to Homeland Secretary Janet Napolitano asking her to shelve it. He added a provision to last month's senate immigration package that would permanently bar the imposition of such fees.

And now, with Thursday's rejection by the Appropriations Committee (which controls Washington's purse-strings), Leahy appears to have sent the fee to oblivion.

This being Washington, nothing ever completely goes away. But Leahy, in a statement late Thursday, had the confidence to declare, "We've put a second nail in the coffin of this bad idea."

There's clear self-interest at play for border-state Vermont, where bilateral trade with Canada was worth $5.1 billion in 2012. But there's family history as well -- Leahy's wife of more than 50 years, Marcelle Pomerleau, is of French-Canadian descent. 

As the longest-serving U.S. senator, Leahy, 73, also holds the rank of president pro-tempore of the Senate, which makes him third in line for the presidency, after the vice president and speaker of the House.

Leahy is also, rather famously, Washington's most unlikely Deadhead, having once hosted the late Jerry Garcia and his bandmates in the Senate dining room. No sooner was Garcia seated, than Leahy rushed over to the late and legendary segregationist Sen. Strom Thurmond, saying, "Please join us. There is someone I want you to meet."

Leahy's statement Thursday urged respect for the "237-year tradition of encouraging the interchange of people and commerce across the northern border, which is the world's longest border between two peaceful neighbours.

"A new fee on this interchange would threaten the core of our economy. Asking our hard-working border officers to become tollbooth operators would do nothing to strengthen border security, but it would do a lot to undermine our cultural and economic links to Canada."

Mitch Potter is the Toronto Star's Washington Bureau Chief, his third foreign posting after previous assignments to London and Jerusalem. Potter led the Toronto Star’s coverage of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where he won a 2006 National Newspaper Award for his reportage. His dispatches include datelines from 33 countries since 2000. Follow him on Twitter: @MPwrites 





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