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Minnesota lawmakers remember a Senate institution, Robert C. Byrd

President Obama: "He was as much a part of the Senate as the marble busts that line its chamber and its corridors."
REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
President Obama: “He was as much a part of the Senate as the marble busts that line its chamber and its corridors.”

WASHINGTON — Robert C. Byrd, the long-serving icon of the U.S. Senate has died, aged 92.

Byrd was years past his prime, his cherished spot as top man on the Appropriations Committee gently removed from his purview because it was long since clear he couldn’t handle the load.

His appearances became increasingly infrequent as his hospital visits became more frequent, and Democratic colleagues who boasted that they’d stay up all night to pass health-care reform grumbled about how 1 a.m. procedural votes inconvenienced Byrd during the health care reform legislative process.

Yet when the man who sometimes seemed as old as the Senate itself did appear, it was as if time itself stood still. My colleague Dan Malloy, of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, summed up Byrd in his last few years in the Senate as “frail, trembling, but resolutely still here.”

On May 19, the Senate Rules Committee held a hearing where former Sen. Walter Mondale suggested reforming the filibuster. It would be Byrd’s penultimate appearance at a committee hearing before his death.

Mondale, who had been praised by senators from left and right for his own iconic career, looked as a child meeting a sports superstar when Byrd was wheeled in to deliver remarks urging his younger colleagues to resist change.

“You could tell he was struggling to go through with that,” Mondale said. The reception Byrd received, as a room of Senate icons past and present sat enraptured, “shows the status that he came to enjoy in that body.”

Past and present
Byrd began his time in the Senate as a fervent opponent of the civil rights movement. He was, before his election to the first of three terms in the House, a leader in his local Ku Klux Klan group.

Byrd was elected to the Senate in 1959. Five years later he would filibuster the Civil Rights Act. He opposed the federal holiday for Martin Luther King Jr. Day. But in his later years, those views tempered then went away. Later in life, he apologized for his segregationist leanings, and backed Barack Obama over Hillary Rodham Clinton in what became a powerful symbolic moment during that campaign.

Byrd didn’t just know the rules of the Senate, he embodied them and wrote a book tracing the institution from Rome to present day. Mondale told me Bryd’s view of the Senate as an institution was almost of a religious nature. Byrd believed the phrase that the Senate was the world’s greatest deliberative body, and told every new senator that they were expected to be a different kind of lawmaker.

“He was as much a part of the Senate as the marble busts that line its chamber and its corridors,” President Obama said in a statement. His profound passion for that body and its role and responsibilities was as evident behind closed doors as it was in the stemwinders he peppered with history.”

“He was a senator’s senator,” Mondale said. “His devotion was to the Senate as an institution — he almost idealized it.”

“As a brand new senator, I was lucky enough to catch a glimpse of his legendary passion, his memorable speeches and yarns, and his love for the Senate and the rules of democracy,” said Sen. Amy Klobuchar, in a statement.

“During these last few months, Senator Byrd wasn’t able to spend as much time in the Senate buildings as he wanted,” Sen. Al Franken agreed. “But whether he was here or not, his influence was felt by all of us.

“We felt his dedication to the office, and the people of West Virginia, every time he came to vote despite the increasing hardship of making the trek. I remember knowing we could count on him to be there, even on Christmas, even in the snow.”

And of course, there was the pork.

Byrd was a force unparalelled at securing earmarks for the state, then having his name slapped on them.

Sen. Ted Kennedy used to tell a story, recounted by Klobuchar, that goes like this:

“At his 90th birthday party, I remember Sen. Kennedy telling a story about campaigning for his brother in West Virginia.  At one point, they had bus trouble, and Kennedy personally called the West Virginia highway patrol.  ‘We are stalled,’ he said, ‘on the Robert C. Byrd Highway here, ma’am, and we need some help.’

“‘The Robert C. Byrd Highway?’ she said, ‘Which one?'”

Practical politics
Byrd was many things, but politicos in Washington are always looking at the practical effects of any action.

The financial reform bill is teetering on the edge of support in the Senate, and Democrats lost a solid yes vote with Byrd’s death. Scott Brown, the Massachusetts Republican, is seen as the most likely swing vote, but his office has said he’s leaning no. That would leave Democrats one vote shy of the votes needed to cut off that procedural tactic Byrd treasured so, the filibuster.

But that is a temporary delay. West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin (a Democrat) will appoint a replacement for Byrd.

It is a well-known secret that Manchin himself covets the seat, but he reportedly won’t appoint himself. West Virginia’s rules and precedents on replacing a senator are somewhat complex here, but there’s a question of interpretation as to whether a special election will be held to fill the remainder of his term this November or in 2012 (when he would have been up for reelection anyways).

Certainly Democrats, facing a stiff headwind this fall, would prefer to contest the seat in 2012, rather than risk losing the seat this year and throw the balance of power in the Senate in doubt.

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by James Hamilton on 07/04/2010 - 02:46 pm.

    When one reviews Sen. Byrd’s life, one thing becomes abundantly clear: he knew which way the wind blew. Whatever he may or may not have believed when it came to race, his explanation for leaving the Klan was, in essence, that membership limited his political prospects. Therein lies the key to understanding the man.

    We should not confuse greatness with power, which he undeniably held.

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