MANY LIBERALS WERE startled when one of the strongest Senate voices warning against invading Iraq turned out to be 84-year-old Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, a man slightly to the center-right of his party, a defense hawk and very much a traditionalist. But at the heart of Byrd's traditionalism is reverence for the U.S. Constitution. And in the days leading up to the Senate vote to give President Bush authority to take military action against Iraq, Byrd hammered away at two points: First, the Bush administration was trying to take away Congress' constitutional right to declare war; and second, the Senate wasn't spending enough time debating a momentous resolution that could send American soldiers to their deaths.
Of course, Byrd's arguments were defeated when senators first voted for cloture, blocking Byrd's threatened filibuster; they then backed the White House by a vote of 77-to-23, with a slender majority of Democrats supporting Bush. During the Iraq debate, Byrd was anything but deferential to his president. (Noting that England's King Charles I first used the term commander in chief in 1639, Byrd said, "You know what happened to Charles I of England? The swordsman cut off the head of Charles I on Jan. 30, 1649. So much for commander in chief.")
He flatly accused the administration of employing a wag-the-dog strategy by shifting attention from the faltering economy to the war. He noted that the Bush team failed to produce evidence that immediate action was needed despite numerous requests from lawmakers. He contended that the administration is using the war against terrorism and the creation of a Department of Homeland Security to grab power from the legislative branch. And earlier this year, he pronounced this White House the most partisan he's seen in almost 50 years in Washington, a period that includes George Bush Senior, Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon.
Byrd was appalled that in its document making the case for a war resolution, the Bush White House mentioned the Constitution only once in 31 pages--and used a lowercase "c." "It references the Constitution as though it were some dusty relic of the past that needs to be eulogized before it is retired," he said, pointing out that Bush wouldn't be president without it. "What is the matter with those people? Haven't they studied the Constitution down at the other end of the avenue? They better become aware of it."
SINCE COMING TO THE SENATE IN 1959, Byrd has held every major leadership position, including majority leader, minority leader, president pro tempore (his current title) and chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee. (His Web site modestly proclaims that he rose from "Humble Beginnings to West Virginian of the Century.") He literally wrote the book on the Senate, a four-volume history that covers notable speeches, topics such as impeachment and judicial nominations, and even the Senate's role in American film and literature. Protecting the Senate's domain is second nature to him. Former Rep. Ken Hechler (D-W.Va.), who teaches at Marshall University, observes, "He's certainly a protector of the prerogatives of Congress to the nth degree."
Byrd opposed the line-item veto successfully promoted by the Clinton administration several years ago, noting that the Roman Senate fell when it gave up the power of the purse. He often waves a copy of the Constitution around when he speaks on the Senate floor.
Two years ago, West Virginia voters sent him to the Senate with 78 percent of the vote, his eighth straight term. "There's no conceivable way he could lose an election here," says Paul Nyden, a reporter who covers Byrd for The Charleston Gazette. And Byrd has returned the favor of voter faith, bringing back billions of dollars to his tiny state and earning the nickname "the King of Pork." Providing support for infrastructure has been one of his key issues in Washington, along with other state interests such as supporting steel. …