Byrd's Death Leaves 'Void' in West Virginia

By Wereschagin, Mike | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, June 28, 2010 | Go to article overview
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Byrd's Death Leaves 'Void' in West Virginia

Wereschagin, Mike, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

The death of Sen. Robert Carlyle Byrd leaves the Senate without its most vocal defender, strips Democrats of a crucial vote in the fight to pass a financial regulatory reform bill and sets up a battle among West Virginia's top politicians for a seat that hasn't been vacant in many of their lifetimes.

Byrd, who served in Congress for nearly a quarter of the nation's history, died at 3 a.m. Monday in Inova Fairfax Hospital in Virginia. He was 92. He was in failing health for years and was hospitalized last week with symptoms of heat exhaustion and dehydration. Neither the hospital nor his office released a cause of death.

Democratic Gov. Joe Manchin must balance his ambition for 2012 -- when Byrd's term expires -- with the need to appoint someone relatively soon so his party returns to its 59-41 seat majority in the U.S. Senate. The party's 58 votes are two shy of being able to break a Republican filibuster of the financial regulatory reform bill that, this weekend, seemed all but certain of passing.

Manchin said he would not appoint himself to the seat. His spokesman did not respond to a question about candidates he would consider.

"Gov. Manchin is a savvy politician who has had lots of time to prepare for this. He knows that, historically, sitting governors who ... appoint themselves as acting senators lose, come general election time. It looks too much like a corrupt bargain," said Bob Maranto, a political scientist and education professor at the University of Arkansas.

"I expect he has already sounded out some suitable placeholders who can keep the seat until the 2012 election, when Manchin will be in a good position to run for it," Maranto said.

He predicted Manchin would appoint retired West Virginia Supreme Court Judge Richard Neely, 68.

If the popular second-term governor decides to run, it could be against U.S. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, the Republican daughter of a former governor considered by many in the West Virginia GOP to be the party's top Senate prospect. Capito considered challenging Byrd in 2006 but decided not to take on the man whose statue stands alone in her state capitol's rotunda. She could not be reached yesterday.

The Democrats' lost vote likely will be short-lived, said Jack Holmes, political science professor at Hope College in Holland, Mich. Manchin has not set a time line for appointing a replacement, who would serve the remainder of Byrd's term.

"It's pretty obvious the governor of West Virginia is likely to appoint another Democrat, and that Democrat will probably vote with the others," Holmes said.

More troubling for the state is the loss of Byrd's considerable clout.

"Probably the biggest loss is for West Virginia itself," said Lebanon Valley College political science professor Chris Dolan. Byrd used his seniority and encyclopedic knowledge of Senate rules to steer billions of dollars to West Virginia.

That duty falls to Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller, a former governor first elected to the Senate in 1984 who is 15th on the seniority list.

"I looked up to him, I fought next to him ,and I am deeply saddened that he is gone," Rockefeller said. "He leaves a void that simply can never be filled."

The Senate yesterday convened with white roses on an empty desk in the second row where Byrd last sat, an institutional vacancy that will not soon be filled even after his successor is named.

When he spoke, Washington listened, commanding attention in a way that no other modern lawmaker does.

"There's nobody who knows the rules the way he knew the rules. Nobody who knew the history the way he knew the history," said Norman Ornstein, a constitutional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

Byrd began the longest career in Senate history in 1959, two years before President Obama was born.

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