Sen. Robert Byrd (D)
Elected: 1958, term expires 2012, 9th term.
Born: Nov. 20, 1917, North Wilkesboro, NC .
Education: American U., J.D. 1963, Marshall U., B.A. 1994.
Family: Widowed; 4 children.
Elected office: WV House of Delegates, 1946–50; WV Senate, 1950–52; U.S. House of Reps., 1952–58; U.S. Senate majority whip, 1971–76, Majority ldr., 1977–80, 1987-88, Minority ldr., 1981–86.
Robert Byrd, the longest-serving member of the U.S. Senate in history, may come closer to the kind of senator the founding fathers had in mind than any other. He comes from the humblest of beginnings, and when first elected to the Senate, as part of the large and talented Democratic class of 1958, he was scarcely noticed. Now, he is the only member of that class still in Congress. He is also the Senate president pro tempore, thus third in line for the presidency. On June 12, 2006, Byrd became the longest-serving senator in history (an achievement made bittersweet by the fact that it was the birthday of his wife of nearly 69 years, Erma Byrd, who had died in March of that year). He attained another historic milestone on November 18, 2009, when his combined service in the House and Senate—totaling 20,774 days—made him the longest serving member of Congress ever. He also has cast more votes than any senator in history. The late Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts once quipped, “Every time Bob casts a vote, he sets a new record. It is not fair, though, that he counts the votes he cast in the Roman Senate too, but we love him anyway and we never stop learning from him.”
|Robert Byrd (D)||296,276||(64%)||($4,944,546)|
|John Raese (R)||155,043||(34%)||($3,147,967)|
|Robert Byrd (D)||159,154||(86%)|
|Billy Hendricks (D)||26,609||(14%)|
Prior Winning Percentages: 2000 (78%), 1994 (69%), 1988 (65%), 1982 (69%), 1976 (100%), 1970 (78%), 1964 (68%), 1958 (59%), 1956 House (57%), 1954 House (63%), 1952 House (56%)
Byrd grew up desperately poor. “I lived in a house without electricity,” he once recalled. “No running water, no telephone, little wooden outhouse.” The son of a coal miner in southern West Virginia, Byrd was a toddler when his mother died. His father gave the boy to an aunt and uncle to raise, Titus and Vlurma Byrd. As a young man, Byrd worked as a welder in wartime shipyards and a meat cutter in a coal company town. When he won his seat in the state House of Delegates in 1946, he campaigned in every hollow, playing his fiddle and, as he later said, joining the Ku Klux Klan to better fit in with his constituents. He later said that he quickly regretted the decision and quit. But the episode haunted him his entire career. Byrd worked hard in the Legislature, and went on to win a U.S. House seat in 1952. Six years later, when he was 40 years old, he was elected to the Senate, even though the United Mine Workers initially opposed him and the coal companies never supported him.
In the Senate, he became a supporter of Democratic Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson and in return got a seat on the powerful Appropriations Committee. He backed Hubert Humphrey against John F. Kennedy in the 1960 West Virginia Democratic presidential primary not because he shared Humphrey’s liberal politics—Byrd’s voting record then was as conservative as any Southerner’s and he opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964—but because Johnson wanted to stop Kennedy. In his early years, he took care to master the Senate’s arcane rules. As he said in 2002, “Nobody has ever used the rules of the Senate more than I have.” In the 1960s, Byrd’s career took what in retrospect was a helpful detour. In 1965, he became assistant majority whip, an unimportant position then. In 1971, Sen. Edward Kennedy neglected his duties as majority whip after the accident at Chappaquiddick, when he drove his car off a bridge, killing a young woman riding with him. Byrd quietly lined up support and, with the deathbed vote of Democratic Sen. Richard Russell of Georgia, ousted Kennedy from his leadership position and took over as whip. Byrd performed ably in the role, managing Senate business and accommodating colleagues’ needs. When Majority Leader Mike Mansfield retired in 1976, Byrd easily won the top job. All the while, Byrd’s popularity grew at home. In 1970, he won 78% of the vote, becoming the first West Virginian in history to carry all 55 counties in the state. Byrd did not like being majority leader. Contrary to most people’s assumptions, he considered the job to have little power. Senate rules requiring unanimous consent or a supermajority to get anything done allow a minority of senators or even an individual senator to block progress on legislation. Byrd was aware that his power came from meeting other senators’ needs. He did not have a national agenda of his own, though his voting record became notably less conservative as time went on. In 1987, with Democrats back in the majority after six years out of power, Byrd established some legislative priorities and then announced he would leave the post after the 1988 election.
In 1989, Byrd got the position he really wanted—chairman of the Appropriations Committee. For the next 20 years, he was either the chairman or ranking minority member of the panel, which controls the government’s purse strings. “I want to be West Virginia’s billion dollar industry,” he said in 1990, and he went on to succeed handsomely. Citizens Against Government Waste, a watchdog group and a Byrd critic, reported in 2006 that West Virginia had gotten nearly $3 billion in federal projects since 1991, and that 33 of them were named for Byrd, including the Robert C. Byrd Highway, the Robert C. Byrd Health Sciences Center, the Robert C. Byrd Center for Legislative Studies, the Robert C. Byrd Hilltop Office Complex and the Robert C. Byrd Hardwood Technologies Center. Clarksburg got a Federal Bureau of Investigation office, Parkersburg got U.S. Treasury and Internal Revenue Service offices, the town of Harper’s Ferry got a Fish and Wildlife Training Center, Martinsburg got a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms office and Wheeling got a NASA research center. Byrd likes to boast that when he was in the House of Delegates in 1947, West Virginia had just four miles of divided, four-lane highway. Today, it has 1,087 miles.
But a string of recent congressional scandals involving appropriations earmarks aroused public concerns about the proliferation of earmarks, and Byrd has come under increasing pressure to restrict them. In 2007, he announced new rules requiring that sponsors of earmarks be identified in documents accompanying the spending bills and that they certify that they or their spouses would not benefit financially from them. Byrd himself continues to be a robust earmarker, inserting $123 million in projects for his state in the 2008-2009 omnibus appropriations bill alone, more than any other senator. The projects included $12 million for construction at Bluestone Lake and $5 million for a DNA laboratory at Marshall University. “An earmark may be pork to some political chatterbox on television, but to many communities in West Virginia and other states, earmarks are economic lifelines,” Byrd said in 2008. “Earmarks may fund a road that has fallen into dangerous disrepair or a bridge that is on the verge of collapse. An earmark addresses economic needs that many times fall between the cracks of the Washington bureaucracy. When that happens, the people I represent cannot call some unelected bureaucrat in the White House budget office or a Cabinet secretary. They call me! … and (I) will not ever apologize for my efforts on behalf of the good people I represent.”
In 2007, Byrd stood like Cato in the Roman Senate against the latest proposal to pass the line-item veto, which would give the president the power to selectively disapprove of individual items in appropriations bills. “I will stand back here and let my bones crumble under me, until I no longer have any breath in me,” Byrd said, with his typical oratorical flourish. “Such a process is a lethal, lethal, lethal aggrandizement of the chief executive’s role in the legislative process. Lethal. Deadly. ... It is a gross, gross, colossal distortion of the congressional power of the purse. It is a dangerous, dangerous proposition, a wolf in the sheep’s clothing of fiscal responsibility.” Similarly, when Republican Majority Leader Bill Frist threatened to change the filibuster rule in the confirmation fight over Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito, Byrd reacted furiously, even though he ended up voting to confirm Alito.
Byrd’s positions are not just parochial, but are the product of serious study of the Constitution and of history. He keeps a copy of the Constitution in his left breast pocket. With the assistance of Senate historian Richard Baker, he wrote The Senate 1789-1989, a two-volume history, plus two volumes of classic speeches and statistics. The collection is based on impressive research, gracefully written, full of arresting anecdotes and sound insights, and it surpassed any previous work on the subject. Byrd earned a law degree while serving in the Senate, collecting his diploma from President Kennedy at the 1963 American University commencement where Kennedy delivered his most important foreign policy speech. In 1994, Byrd was awarded his bachelor’s degree summa cum laude by Marshall University, which he had attended for one semester 43 years before before running out of money. He earned As in all eight courses he took. Byrd is devoutly self-educated as well. He systematically reads the classics, and takes to quoting Shakespeare, Thucydides or Cato the Younger in debates on the budget or the line-item veto. But Byrd is also capable of having a little fun. He played a Confederate general in the film Gods and Generals in 2001.
Byrd turned 91 in November 2008 and has been in frail health for the last few years. He was away from the Senate for nearly two months in the first part of 2009 with multiple infections and other problems that required a six-week hospital stay. He returned to work in late July 2009 with the aid of a wheelchair and an attendant. He also was hospitalized after a fall in March 2008. “My only adversity is age,” Byrd has said. “I will continue to do this work until this old body just gives out and drops.” His sporadic absences from the Senate prompted quiet discussion among Democratic colleagues about urging him to give up his cherished gavel at Appropriations. Byrd at first resisted, but then gave in. Three days after the November 2008 election, he issued a statement saying: “I have been privileged to be a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee for 50 years and to have chaired the committee for 10 years, during a time of enormous change in our great country, both culturally and politically. A new day has dawned in Washington, and that is a good thing. For my part, I believe it is time for a new day at the top of the Senate Appropriations Committee.” The job went to next-in-line Sen. Daniel Inouye, a Hawaii Democrat, age 84.
Byrd’s relations with several administrations have been strained. Republican President George W. Bush went out of his way to shake Byrd’s hand at his first speech to a joint session of Congress. But Byrd staunchly opposed the new president’s centerpiece legislation, the 2001 tax cut, as “sheer madness,” arguing that it was based on inevitably untrustworthy economic forecasts and complaining that it would cut off funds for appropriators. Byrd’s insistence on maintaining what he regards as the Senate’s constitutional prerogatives, and his distaste for Bush administration policies, led him to embark on two crusades in 2002 that probably contributed to the Democrats’ loss of their Senate majority in November that year. One was his opposition to the bill setting up the Department of Homeland Security. He insisted that the biggest reorganization of the federal government since the creation of the Department of Defense required more scrutiny, and he opposed giving the president authority to shift money between agencies without permission from congressional appropriators. In his persistent speeches, he never used the word filibuster, but that’s what he did. After the election, Democrats realized it was in their political interest to pass the bill, and a motion to limit debate passed 65-29.
Byrd’s other crusade was against military action in Iraq. In September 2002, he accused Bush of political motivation, saying, “All of a sudden the president was dropping in the polls, and the domestic situation was such that the administration was appearing to be much like the emperor who had no clothes. All of a sudden, Bam! All of this war talk—the war fervor, the drums of war, the bugles of war, the clouds of war, this war hysteria—has blown in like a hurricane. And what has that done to the president’s polls? Seventy percent.” In October, Byrd threatened to delay action on the Iraq war resolution by insisting on votes on individual clauses. He was foiled when Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman and Democratic Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota made a wording change that caused his motion to be ruled out of order. His attempt to filibuster lost and the Senate passed the resolution 77-23.
He was not particularly fond of Democratic President Bill Clinton either, but Byrd’s distaste for the Bush administration was acute. “I’ve never seen an administration so discourteous, so arrogant toward the legislative branch as this one is. I’ve been here 51 years, so why shouldn’t I speak out?” He opposed the Bush energy bill, even though it included money for clean coal research helpful to West Virginia. He attended the Democratic National Convention in 2004, his first since 1988, to plug his just-published book Losing America: Confronting a Reckless and Arrogant Presidency. In 2008, Byrd, the former Klansman, finally found a modern president he liked in Democrat Barack Obama. He had endorsed Obama in advance of the West Virginia primary, calling the Illinois Democrat “a shining young statesman, who possesses the personal temperament and courage necessary to extricate our country from this costly misadventure in Iraq, and to lead our nation at this challenging time in history.”
West Virginia has had only three U.S. senators in 50 years—since 1958, which saw the election of both Byrd and Jennings Randolph, who retired in 1984, 52 years after he first entered Congress. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, also a Democrat, was elected to Randolph’s seat in 1984. Byrd was elected to a ninth term in 2006. Republicans, noting that George W. Bush had carried the state twice and that Byrd would turn 89 two weeks after the election, hoped for a strong opponent but could not persuade a top candidate to run against Byrd. Finally, in January 2006 a candidate stepped forward, John Raese, a businessman from Morgantown who ran against Rockefeller in 1984 and lost by only 52%-48%. But Raese was hardly of a mind to run a tough campaign against Byrd, who was a friend of his father, Dyke Raese, a former basketball coach at West Virginia University. Raese recalled, “My dad would come down and say, ‘Guess who called me on my birthday?’ I’d say, ‘I’ll take three guesses. Two of them don’t count. It was Robert Byrd.’” Raese’s campaign message was: “I’m running for U.S. Senate, not against Senator Byrd. I have a lot of different ideas, not that his are right or wrong. Mine might be better.” Byrd won 64%-34%. At a spirited rally at the end of an earlier successful re-election campaign, Byrd said, “West Virginia has always had four friends: God Almighty, Sears Roebuck, Carter’s Liver Pills and Robert C. Byrd.”