WASHINGTON — Wisconsin Republican Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner is known for being cantankerous.
He relishes the reputation.
“When I want to be grumpy, I can be grumpy,” the 76-year-old congressman told the Wisconsin Examiner with a chuckle this week in his Capitol Hill office.
After he announced his plans to retire after this term, he told colleagues on the U.S. House Judiciary Committee that he plans to be even “more unhinged and more tart” during his last 16 months in office.
But Sensenbrenner appeared at ease and friendly this week as he puffed on a Nicaraguan cigar while discussing his legacy, his plans for retirement and his 2020 election predictions.
Sensenbrenner—who joined Congress during the Carter administration and is the No. 2 longest-serving House lawmaker—disputed reports that his departure has anything to do with displeasure surrounding President Donald Trump or his policies.
“I support him, despite what some of the people in the media are saying is that everybody’s leaving because of Trump. I’m not and I’m adamant in saying that,” Sensenbrenner said. “People knew Trump’s personality before they elected him. He hasn’t changed and he’s not going to change between now and Election Day 2020.”
Although some of his veteran GOP colleagues left Congress in 2006 after their committee chairmanships expired, Sensenbrenner stayed on, continuing even after Democrats took control of the chamber in 2007. He had been chairman of the House Science Committee for four years and chairman of the powerful Judiciary Committee for six years—the maximum allowed under House GOP rules.
Protecting his legacy
But he stuck it out in the minority and without the prestige of a chairmanship, he said, in part because he wanted to “protect the Patriot Act and the Real ID Act, which I think are significant parts of my legacy.”
He was a lead architect of the Patriot Act, which expanded U.S. government surveillance after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
He said this week, “We found that what the [National Security Agency] was doing was, they went too far.” He led an effort to rein in government surveillance, which then-President Barack Obama signed into law.
Sensenbrenner “toyed” with retirement a few years ago, he said, “but the fear that I had was that Wisconsin would be left without a credible U.S. Senate candidate. We had two of them in the primary, but I was afraid both of them would pivot and run for my seat and that would hurt the down-ballot races.”
He “took one for the team,” by keeping his seat, he said. He wanted to leave when he could do so entirely on his terms.
“My health is fine, I’m a cancer survivor. Nobody was running against me who could claim that they forced me to quit because I was afraid of losing. This was the ideal time to retire on my terms and I did it.”
Sensenbrenner was the second of Wisconsin’s five U.S. House Republicans to announce his retirement in recent weeks. Rep. Sean Duffy announced he’ll be leaving Congress at the end of this month to spend more time with his family.
Wisconsin’s dwindling delegation
Their departures will further decrease seniority in a delegation that already lost U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R) when he retired from Wisconsin’s 1st District earlier this year. They could also potentially make it easier for Democrats to pick up seats in 2020, although political observers see both districts as likely to elect Republicans.
Ryan and Duffy have been Sensenbrenner’s best friends in Congress, he said.
“Sean Duffy and I are very close. We consider each other as family. When I converted, he was my sponsor,” Sensenbrenner said. He converted to Catholicism in 2014.
“I’m the godfather of Dufette No. 7,” Sensenbrenner added. Duffy and his wife, Rachel, have eight children; their ninth is due next month.
A Green Bay Packers jersey—a gift from Ryan—hangs on Sensenbrenner’s wall. It says “THE DEAN” and is No. 5 for Sensenbrenner’s 5th District.
Sensenbrenner gave Ryan a departing gift when he left Congress. “Since the speaker can’t drive himself or herself, he had to learn how to drive again. I gave him the booklet that the Wisconsin DMV gives the 15-year-olds as they come in to get their temps.”
Sensenbrenner said he and Duffy were able to persuade a reluctant Ryan to assume the speakership in 2015, after Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) announced he was stepping down.
“The final persuasion for Paul to become speaker was done by Duffy and me,” Sensenbrenner said. “We were just the three of us in his office. This was after speaker Boehner tried for an hour and a half and didn’t succeed and it took us about an hour and we did.”
Ryan was holding back because he wanted to write a tax reform bill as the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, Sensenbrenner said. “I said, ‘If you think you will be without influence as speaker, you are wrong.’” Ultimately, “all of what Paul wanted in the tax reform ended up being in the bill that was enacted.”
Sensenbrenner will soon join Ryan and Duffy in the ranks of former congressmen.
Campaigning for Trump
He plans to stay close to his wife, Cheryl Warren Sensenbrenner, who lives in a Washington-area nursing home after suffering a brain aneurysm a few years ago.
He’ll also be spending a “considerable amount of time in Wisconsin and being involved in Wisconsin politics,” he said, although he plans to be “scrupulously neutral” about his replacement until the Republican Party endorses a candidate for his seat.
“I’m going to be there working on turning the vote out for the entire Republican ticket in my district and elsewhere in the state from top down.” That includes campaigning for Trump in 2020 if the president asks. “If he thinks I’m toxic, then I won’t. His choice, not mine. I want to.”
He sees Democratic gains in 2018 statewide elections as a reflection of “animosity against Governor Walker, not animosity against Trump, because if it was animosity against Trump, we would have had significant losses in the super majorities that Republicans have in both houses of the state legislature.”
Sensenbrenner, who keeps a red “Make America Great Again” hat on his windowsill, is confident that Wisconsin will vote to re-elect Trump in 2020.
“This is going to be a very close election, both in Wisconsin and elsewhere. But I think the Democrats are overreaching and if they want to keep on their march to the left, they will fall off the cliff like a bunch of lemmings,” he said.