The news expected — and news dreaded by Democrats for several reasons — finally came: West Virginia Senator Robert C. Byrd, 92, a conservative Democrat who long was a voice of conscience and independence in his party, has died.
His death removes a Greatest Generation legislator — and also a former Ku Klux Klan member — from the Senate.
The loss will be trifold one: a historical one (Byrd’s term was historical and he was a wealth of knowledge about the Senate, its history and procedures), personal (he was a colorful figure), and political. It throws a new twist into the political mix heading into mid-terms. Although his replacement will most assuredly be another Democrat who may be less independent-minded than Byrd key parts of Obama’s agenda may require procedural and other votes with party unity. And reports suggests (see below) that whoever fill his term may not be able to serve too long. With Byrd gone from scene key questions will become whether this will endanger the passage of financial reform or even Elena Kagan’s Supreme Court nomination if a issue arises and GOPers filibuster.
Friends and colleagues in Washington are now reacting to the death as news stories and commentaries are now pouring in. Here’s a cross section:
Robert C. Byrd, 92, a conservative West Virginia Democrat who became the longest-serving member of Congress in history and used his masterful knowledge of the institution to shape the federal budget, protect the procedural rules of the Senate and, above all else, tend to the interests of his state, died at 3 a.m. Monday at Inova Fairfax Hospital, his office said.
Mr. Byrd had been hospitalized last week with what was thought to be heat exhaustion, but more serious issues were discovered, aides said Sunday. No formal cause of death was given.
Starting in 1958, Mr. Byrd was elected to the Senate an unprecedented nine times. He wrote a four-volume history of the body, was majority leader twice and chaired the powerful Appropriations Committee, controlling the nation’s purse strings, and yet the positions of influence he held did not convey the astonishing arc of his life.
A child of the West Virginia coal fields, Mr. Byrd rose from the grinding poverty that has plagued his state since before the Great Depression, overcame an early and ugly association with the Ku Klux Klan, worked his way through night school and by force of will, determination and iron discipline made himself a person of authority and influence in Washington.
Byrd, who served longer than any member of Congress in U.S. history and cast more congressional votes than anyone since taking office in January 1959, died peacefully at about 3 a.m. at Inova Hospital in Fairfax, Va, a spokesman for the family told the Associated Press.
As president pro tem of the Senate, he was third in line for succession to the presidency. The post of president pro tem now goes to Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, a Democrat from Hawaii.
West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin III, a Democrat, will appoint someone to finish Byrd’s term, which ends in 2013.
Byrd’s death marks another milestone in the demise of a postwar generation of “Old Bulls” who ran Congress for decades. Many of them — such as Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.) and John Warner (R-Va.) — have retired. Ted Stevens (R- Alaska) lost his 2008 bid for reelection in the face of corruption charges. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) died last year.
In recent years, the wheelchair-bound Byrd was not as strong a presence in the Senate as he once was, making rare speaking appearances. Byrd showed up at a Senate hearing in May and read a statement cautioning colleagues against severely limiting use of the filibuster, a device he used to hold the Senate floor for 14 hours and 13 minutes in an unsuccessful filibuster of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
Renowned for carrying a copy of the U.S. Constitution in his left shirt pocket to brandish at colleagues and constituents, Byrd had a deep commitment to history. A master of Senate rules, he was by turns protective and disruptive of procedure, slowing debate with long, florid orations that invoked Greek philosophers, Roman generals and the Founding Fathers. But he could also pierce debate with a pointed comment.
In November, Byrd broke the record for congressional service that had been set by Democrat Carl Hayden of Arizona, who served in the House and Senate from 1912 to 1969. He was the Senate’s majority leader for six of those years and was third in the line of succession to the presidency, behind House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
A former member of the Ku Klux Klan, he was known to recite poetry, quote the Bible, discuss the Constitutional Convention and detail the Peloponnesian Wars — and frequently did in Senate debates.
Mr. Byrd’s death comes as Senate Democrats are working to pass the final version of the financial overhaul bill and win other procedural battles in the week before the Independence Day recess. In the polarized atmosphere of Washington, President Obama’s agenda seemed to hinge on Mr. Byrd’s health. Earlier this year, in the final days of the health care debate, the ailing senator was pushed onto the Senate floor in his plaid wheelchair so he could cast his votes.
Mr. Byrd was an important player during the run-up to the planned impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton in 1998. Warning that the Senate was teetering on the brink of “the black pit of partisan self-indulgence,” Mr. Byrd helped broker an agreement that led to the President’s censure.
As impeachment loomed for President Richard Nixon during the Watergate affair in 1974, Mr. Byrd opposed resignation on the grounds that “the question of guilt or innocence would never be fully resolved.” With an eye as ever toward constitutional integrity, Mr. Byrd announced on the Senate floor: “This would change our system from one of fixed tenure to one in which a president would remain in office only by popular approval.”
President Nixon resigned anyway.
During the past decade, Mr. Byrd was among the most strident of the Bush administration’s critics, repeatedly warning the president to read the Constitution or face impeachment himself.
Shortly after the 2008 election, facing rumblings over his age in the face of an economic crisis, Mr. Byrd announced he was stepping down after a decade as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. From that post, he had enabled his home state to dramatically build up its infrastructure and services, adding highways, bridges, health centers, scholarships and funding for higher education. His critics had crowned him “King of Pork,” but at home the state legislator had dubbed him “West Virginian of the Twentieth Century.”
“West Virginia has always had four friends,” Mr. Byrd said after winning re-election in November 2000. “God Almighty, Sears Roebuck, Carter’s Liver Pills and Robert C. Byrd.”
The Politico notes that it is not a “given” that whoever fills Byrd’s seat will hold it for too long:
What a difference a few days make — or don’t — in filling the rest of the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd’s ninth term.
West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin, a Democrat, has the power to appoint a successor to Byrd – but, because Byrd died at the beginning of this week and not the end, it’s not entirely clear whether that person will be a short-timer in the Senate or serve more than two years.
Under West Virginia election law, Manchin surely would have been able to appoint someone to fill the entire remainder of Byrd’s term had Byrd died after July 3 – or with less than 30 months left to go on a term that expires Jan. 3, 2013. But with more than 30 months left of an “unexpired term,” the law stipulates that he tap an interim successor until an election can be held.
That law, however, isn’t clear on two points within the construct: First, the law is silent on when, exactly, a vacancy occurs – at the time of death, when the Senate informs the state or when the governor declares it? – and the law for calling a special election is written in a way that suggests that it couldn’t be held until the date of the next regularly scheduled election in 2012.
Democratic Gov. Joe Manchin will appoint Byrd’s successor. Given the time frame — outside two and a half years before Byrd’s term expired — a special election will be held in November.
Democratic sources say they think that Nick Casey, the state Democratic party chair, had been quietly tapped (and approved) to be his fill-in/successor should a vacancy occur. Sen. Harry Reid and others have been consulted on this eventuality.
The only ambiguity here is when Manchin officially declares a “vacancy” in the seat; if he does so after July 3 somehow, then his hand-chosen replacement could serve through 2012.
If not, the successor serves a few months, and Republicans get the chance to pick another Senate race in 2010.
Ambinder also says the Democrats may now have to move to one of three strategies to secure financial reform, now that they can’t count on Byrd’s vote.
Here’s a gallery of photos showing Byrd.
The longest-serving member of Congress in American history has died at the age of 92. Byrd passed away early this morning after a brief illness. He had serious health problems in recent years, and he had been sent to the hospital for what his staff initially thought was heat exhaustion.
Byrd was a champion of WV, using his long-time perch on the Senate Appropriations Committee to steer billions of dollars back to his home state. He also served as the unofficial conscience of the Senate, advocating its equality with the executive branch; he authored a 4-volume set of books on the history of the Senate and its greatest speeches.
His passing will leave a hole in the upper chamber that won’t easily be filled. But expect much of this week, which was supposed to be taken up with campaign finance and financial regulatory reform legislation, to be dedicated instead to tributes to Byrd’s long life and unparalleled career.
For more than a third of its 144-year existence, the state of West Virginia was represented in the U.S. Senate by one man: Robert C. Byrd. So encompassing was Byrd’s 50 years of service in the Senate and so encyclopedic his institutional knowledge that by the time he died early Monday morning he had become not just the political personification of West Virginia in the nation’s capital, but the embodiment and ambassador of the Senate itself to the rest of the country. Byrd was admitted to hospital last week for dehydration, and his condition worsened over the weekend as he became critically ill. Twice its majority leader, a master of its all-powerful rules and a fierce defender of its prerogatives, Byrd was as much a part of the place as the wooden desks, steep-sloped galleries and soaring speeches that filled it. Byrd was 92.
But, as the Post’s Paul Kane notes, the language of the law is unclear as it sets up a schedule that would begin the special election process after the “primary next”, meaning, according to Democrats, in the spring of 2012. Such a schedule would place the special election in November 2012 when Byrd’s 9th term would have ended anyway.
The decision of how to read the law will almost certainly come down to Gov. Joe Manchin, a Democrat and the person seen as the most likely long term successor to Byrd in the Senate.
And, either way, Manchin will be required to appoint someone to serve out Byrd’s term — whether it is determined that the term ends this fall or in the fall of 2012. One name being mentioned for that caretaker appointment is state Democratic Party Chairman Nick Casey.
Republicans would almost certainly like to see the special occur this year, a good one nationally for their party. And, Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, who was recruited to challenge Byrd in 2006 but ultimately decided against it, would be at the top of the GOP list and would likely be the best candidate the party could field.
SOME BLOG REACTION:
ANOTHER UPDATE: Off To That Great Klavern In The Sky.
And keep a list of hagiographers in the press who don’t mention Byrd’s Klan connection. Then we can cross-index with the Journolist membership when it comes out . . . .
With a career that spanned more than half a century, there is much to be said about Byrd’s actions and accomplishments — both good and bad — but what many most appreciate about him was his fierce opposition to the war in Iraq.
A glance at Byrd’s laundry list of missed votes since late March is evidence that his Senate seat has in fact been mostly vacant for some time, so the odds that the seat would be declared “vacant” by next Saturday no matter what happens are very slim indeed — Especially when it behooves the Democrats to wait.
I wish Senator Byrd well. Lord knows I’ve disagreed with his politics and made more than a few cracks at his expense, but I never wish ill upon anybody, so I hope things turn out okay.
As votes on our legislation hang in the balance, you might ask what does this mean for LGBT rights. It’s a culturally conservative state with a lot of Dems in its legislature; it’s hard to read whether this could be a GOP pickup or a DINO (re: gay rights; strong union backing is a given in this coal mining state, which is why you see Dem control there)….
……..and I don’t mean to be insensitive by asking this question so soon, but what does this mean for the DADT repeal in the Defense Authorization Bill. Senator Byrd was a key vote secured by a big compromise. Will Governor Manchin likely replace him with a person who will stick to the compromise and vote in favor of the repeal? What’s Manchin’s positions on LGBT issues. Will he even consider the replacement’s LGBT-rights position before naming them?
As you can tell by the fawning tone of the correspondents from both CNN and MSNBC, get ready for the mother of all narrative struggles. As that astonishing last paragraph in the MSNBC piece quoted above particularly highlights, the left will be eager to whitewash Byrd’s horrific legacy, which Michelle Malkin noted in a 2001 article for Capitalism magazine, whose every paragraph referenced Byrd’s ex-KKK past in the first sentence…
…..President Obama’s potential words of praise to a racial demagogue far worse than even Rev. Wright himself should be especially interesting to watch.
There are, of course, immediate political implications from Byrd’s passing, which the NY Times was quick to point out….So, yes, immediate implications, which will unfold this week.
His death truly marks the end of an era, the last gasp of the Solid South (at least solid for Democrats).
Under West Virginia law, the state’s governor, a Democrat, will appoint Sen. Byrd’s successor. State law also calls for a special election to elect a permanent replacement to serve out the balance of his term. McCain carried West Virginia by a substantial margin in 2008 so I would expect a very hard-fought race for the seat.
I’m not familiar enough with West Virginia politics to speculate on the outcome but there is a bare possibility that West Virginia could present Republicans with the 10th seat needed to take control of the Senate, ironic considering the seat had been filled by a man who had been a Democratic powerhouse since before most Americans were born.
Before his death early this morning at the age of 92, I placed the legendary West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd in the category of “only the wrong survive” along with Fidel Castro and Pete Seeger. I was not a fan.
In 2005 the New York Times published a predictably fawning profile Senator Byrd by Sheryl Stolberg in “A master of Senate’s ways is still parrying in his twilight.” Around the same time I found an occasion to reflect on Senator Byrd’s discourse on Chaucer’s Pardoner’s Tale in “Tales of the Senate.” Today Adam Clymer provides the traditional Times obituary.
Robert Byrd was indeed a valuable link not only to the Senate’s past, but also to the Democratic Party’s history as the party of slavery, segregation, and opposition to equal treatment of blacks. Stolberg obviously loved Byrd’s cornpone constitutional shtick in favor of filibustering a Republican president’s judicial appointees. It’s a shame that Stolberg exerted no effort to put Byrd’s shtick in the context it merited.
We don’t need to speak ill of the dead, but if we are honest, we must acknowledge there is little if anything to be proud of in Senator Byrd’s long senate legacy. To his credit, however, he never killed a campaign worker while driving drunk over a bridge or joined another senator in making a waitress sandwich. His personal and family life seem to have been relatively decent for a Democrat senator.
The search is on now for a Democrat bench-warmer to hold the seat and vote in mindless lockstep with Reid, Schumer, and Durbin. Who’ll start the bidding? After all, a senate seat is “a….valuable thing.” And a West Virginia senate seat is apparently a life-long position.
By any reasonable measure, that institutional memory is simply irreplaceable. What’s more, Byrd’s passing represents the end of an era, and his stature and grace will be missed.
The day clearly belongs to the legendary senator, but given the larger circumstances on Capitol Hill, it’s only natural to consider the implications of Byrd’s Senate vacancy, as the Democratic caucus slips from 58 to 57 members (with two independents).
Byrd’s replacement will be named by West Virginia’s Democratic governor, Joe Manchin, but as Nate Silver noted yesterday, it’s not entirely straightforward. Under state law, if the vacancy this year is declared before July 3 (this upcoming Saturday), West Virginia will hold a special election this November to elect a senator to fill the remaining two years on Byrd’s current term. If the vacancy is declared after July 3, Manchin can appoint an interim senator who would serve through 2012, and there would be no election this year.
Complicating the political considerations, Steve Kornacki explained that Manchin will likely be interested in the Senate seat, though he has vowed not to appoint himself. It’s in his interest, then, not to declare the seat vacant until after Saturday, after which point Manchin can name a placeholder until the 2012 election.
But regardless of those electoral consequences, Byrd’s storied life and career are nothing short of remarkable. He will not soon be forgotten.
Joe Gandelman is a former fulltime journalist who freelanced in India, Spain, Bangladesh and Cypress writing for publications such as the Christian Science Monitor and Newsweek. He also did radio reports from Madrid for NPR’s All Things Considered. He has worked on two U.S. newspapers and quit the news biz in 1990 to go into entertainment. He also has written for The Week and several online publications, did a column for Cagle Cartoons Syndicate and has appeared on CNN.