Robert Byrd: A Zeal for Preserving the Senate's Power and Civility

By Chaddock, Gail Russell | The Christian Science Monitor, June 28, 2010 | Go to article overview

Robert Byrd: A Zeal for Preserving the Senate's Power and Civility


Chaddock, Gail Russell, The Christian Science Monitor


Sen. Robert Byrd, who died early Monday, had an unrivaled grasp of Senate procedure. He'll also be remembered for the outsize share of federal dollars he won for his state, West Virginia.

In West Virginia, the late Sen. Robert Byrd is already memorialized in more than 1,000 miles of highways and in the projects and jobs, worth billions of dollars, that he delivered over half a century to an impoverished state.

At 57 years, five months, and 26 days, Senator Byrd is the longest-serving member of Congress of all time - a record he broke on Nov. 8, 2009.

But here in the Senate - where leaders are considering a rare memorial service in the chamber - Byrd's legacy is his passion for preserving the power and civility of the Senate, at a time when both are threatened.

IN PICTURES: Senator Robert Byrd through the years and top 10 longest-serving US senators

"He was as much a part of the Senate as the marble busts that line its chamber and its corridors," said President Obama, in a statement after the Democratic senator's death Monday morning. "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."

Raised by an aunt and uncle in grinding poverty and essentially self-taught, Byrd read deeply - especially the US Constitution, the King James Version of the Bible, histories of the Roman republic, and English political history. He rose to leadership in the Senate by massive effort and an unrivaled grasp of Senate procedure, which he shared with colleagues on both sides of the aisle.

"Robert Byrd was the Senate's foremost defender of unlimited debate and the right to amend as a guarantor of minority rights," Sen. Lamar Alexander (R) of Tennessee, who chairs the Senate Republican Conference, said in a statement. "The Senate will miss his wise leadership and I will miss his counsel and friendship."

"He certainly was, in anybody's book, a titan in the Senate, and he will certainly be missed," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California.

In a rare move, Byrd gave up his leadership of the Democratic majority in 1989 to chair the Senate Appropriations Committee, which he used as a virtual ATM machine to help his state. This earned him the label among public-interest groups as the king of pork. But that institutional position also kept him focused on Congress's constitutional powers, especially the power of the purse, against the claim of executive power.

When the Clinton administration pushed to give the president a line-item budget veto to curb congressional pork spending, Byrd responded with a series of floor speeches on how giving up control of the purse destroyed the Senate of the Roman republic, delivered from memory. …

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