WV Sen. Robert Byrd Dies at 92

Adam Clymer
The New York Times

Robert C. Byrd, who used his record tenure as a United States senator to fight for the primacy of the legislative branch of government and to build a modern West Virginia with vast amounts of federal money, died at about 3 a.m. Monday, his office said. He was 92.

He had been in failing health for several years.

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 served 51 years in the Senate, longer than anyone in American history, and with his six years in the House, he was the longest-serving member of Congress. He held a number of Senate offices, including majority and minority leader and president pro tem.

But the post that gave him the most satisfaction was chairman of the Appropriations Committee, with its power of the purse — a post he gave up only last year as his health declined. A New Deal Democrat, Mr. Byrd used the position in large part to battle persistent poverty in West Virginia, which he called “one of the rock bottomest of states.”…

…As a champion of the legislative branch, he found cautionary tales in those histories. In 1993, as Congress weighed a line-item veto, which would have given President Bill Clinton the power to strike individual spending measures from bills passed by Congress, Mr. Byrd delivered 14 speeches on the history of Rome and the role of its Senate.

“Gaius Julius Caesar did not seize power in Rome,” he said. Rather, he said, “the Roman Senate thrust power on Caesar deliberately, with forethought, with surrender, with intent to escape from responsibility.”

A decade later, Mr. Byrd saw a similar lack of Congressional spine. In deferring to President George W. Bush on the Iraq war, Congress had shown a willingness to “hand over, for the foreseeable future, its constitutional power to declare war,” he wrote in “Losing America: Confronting a Reckless and Arrogant Presidency” (Norton, 2004)…

…Mr. Byrd was given his dream job, as the Appropriations Committee chairman. In June 1990, he traveled to Clarksburg, WestVirginia, to announce a $4 million grant to study whether to move the F.B.I.’s identification division there. But he had bigger plans as well.

“I hope to become West Virginia’s billion-dollar industry,” Mr. Byrd told reporters.

“By the time this six-year term of mine is up” in 1995, he went on, “I will have added at least a billion dollars. That’s my goal for West Virginia.”…

…When, in 2005, Republicans considered banning the filibuster on judicial nominations, he warned that such an action would change the “nature of the Senate by destroying the right of free speech it has enjoyed since its creation.”

In “Losing America,” he wrote that the Senate without the filibuster “will no longer be a body of equals.”

“It will, instead, have become a body of toads,” he wrote, “hopping up and down and over one another to please the imperious countenance of an all-powerful president.” …

The Senator’s complete obituary is at The New York Times.

UPDATE: Law professor Ann Althouse comments on the NYT article and offers some insights into Byrd’s career, and replacement, in her blog:

Now, how will his seat be filled? It appears that, under West Virginia law, because the vacancy has occurred before July 3rd, there will be an election this year. If Byrd had survived until this Saturday, the Governor would have appointed his replacement, and that person would have continued in office until 2012.

UDATE 2: Ed Morrissey has some insight into the WV politics in light of Byrd’s death, and puts the Senator’s career and impact into some historical perspective. Got to HotAir.com to read his column there.

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