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Byrd sets a longevity record for the ages

With a career of nearly 57 years, the West Virginia senator becomes Congress' longest-serving member.

November 19, 2009|Richard Simon

WASHINGTON — On his 20,774th day on the job, Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) on Wednesday became the U.S. Capitol's longest-serving lawmaker. And the 91-year-old, who was honored with a standing ovation, told his colleagues that "I've loved every precious minute."

Slowed by age and health problems, Byrd isn't as strong a presence in the Senate as he once was. But he remains a political institution. Many fellow congressional members were not even born when Byrd entered the House on Jan. 3, 1953. He joined the Senate six years later.

Byrd's home state held a celebration Wednesday in front of his statue in the state Capitol. And Gov. Joe Manchin III designated Nov. 18 "Robert C. Byrd Day" -- one of scores of things in West Virginia named after the master of pork-barrel politics.

In Washington, Senate colleagues from both parties paid tribute throughout the day.

"I have the fondest memories as a young staffer here listening to the sounds of Sen. Byrd's fiddle wafting from his suite," recalled Sen. Paul G. Kirk Jr. (D-Mass.).

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) said he keeps on his desk copies of Byrd's addresses on the history of the Senate -- "more than 100 of them delivered over a 10-year period."

Marveled Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.): "He has cast more votes, 18,585, than any other senator ever."

Records are nothing new to Byrd, who will turn 92 Friday and whose term is up in 2012. He became the longest-serving senator in 2006, and he has presided over the Senate's shortest session -- six-tenths of a second. That session, on Feb. 27, 1989, lasted only as long as it took for Byrd to utter a few words, fulfilling a requirement for the Senate to meet.

Byrd belonged to the Ku Klux Klan during the 1940s, a membership he later said he regretted, and joined other Southerners in filibustering against major civil rights legislation during the 1960s. But he noted Wednesday that he has worked to secure funds for building the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial in Washington. Last year, he endorsed Barack Obama for president.

A fierce guardian of congressional prerogatives, Byrd is a former Senate majority leader legendary for his oratory, his mastery of the chamber's traditions and rules, and for pushing through projects for his home state.

The previous record for service in the House and Senate combined was held by Carl Hayden (D-Ariz.), who served from 1912 until 1969.

Byrd, whose wife of almost 69 years died in 2006, tearfully told colleagues Wednesday, "My only regret is that my dear wife, Erma, is not here to enjoy this moment with me, but I know -- yes, I do -- that she is smiling down from heaven and reminding me not to get a big head."

The senator once told his colleagues on the Senate floor: "I will continue to do this work until this old body just gives out and drops. Don't expect that to be any time soon."

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richard.simon@latimes.com

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