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Robert Byrd: a zeal for preserving the Senate's power and civility

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.

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Sen. Robert Byrd (D) of West Virginia doffed his hat for reporters as he arrived at the Capitol in Washington, in this Feb. 26, 2009, file photo.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters/File

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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.

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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. Over Byrd’s objections, Congress in 1996 passed the line-item veto, later overturned by the US Supreme Court.

When Republicans controlled the Senate and proposed ramming through a rule change (“the nuclear option”) to break Democratic filibusters of President Bush’s judicial nominations, Byrd argued for restraint. He convinced this crucial swing group that a filibuster should be used only in cases of "extreme circumstances," because "elections have consequences." The bid was abandoned. This year, when own party considered similar curbs on minority rights, Byrd also argued restraint.

“Having served in the Senate for more than 50 years, and served in both the majority and minority, I know that majorities change,” he said in public testimony before the Senate Rules and Administration Committee on April 20 of this year. “Senators who advocate for rule changes today may have to live under those changes in the minority tomorrow. We should remain open to changes in the Senate rules, but not to the detriment of the institution’s character or purpose.”

Byrd argued tirelessly in a losing battle against the move to send US forces into Iraq in March 2003. “We stand passively mute in the Senate today, paralyzed by our own uncertainty.... I can imagine hearing the walls of this chamber ring just before the war between the states ... but today we hear nothing. We are truly sleepwalking through history,” he said on Feb. 12, 2003.

But he also spoke memorably about the coming of spring, the joy of dogs, and the imperative of civility. Responding to a freshman senator’s charge that a president was a habitual liar, Byrd took to the floor in a Dec. 20, 1995, speech that some senators recall as his classic.

“Can we no longer engage in reasoned, even intense, partisan exchanges in the Senate without imputing evil motives to other senators, without castigating the personal integrity of our colleagues?” he asked. “The kind of mindless gabble and rhetorical putridities as were voiced on this floor last Friday can only create bewilderment and doubt among the American people as to our ability to work with each other in this chamber.... We simply have to stop this business of castigating the integrity of other senators. We all have to abide by these rules.”

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

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