Reporting from Washington — Sen. Robert C. Byrd, the longest-serving member of Congress in history, was seriously ill in a Washington-area hospital, a spokesman said Sunday.
The West Virginia Democrat, 92, fell ill late last week with what was believed to be heat exhaustion and severe dehydration stemming from hot weather. But other unspecified conditions developed and his condition is described as serious, his spokesman said. The hospital was not identified.
Byrd has served in Congress for 57 years — six in the House and the rest in the Senate. A former Senate majority leader and Appropriations Committee chairman, he is legendary for sprinkling floor speeches with references to the Bible and Roman history, as well as for his mastery of the chamber's rules and traditions and his skill in delivering pork-barrel projects to his state, where scores of things have been named after him.
"We are truly hopeful that he gets well soon,'' West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin III said in a statement, "because West Virginians need his leadership in Washington.''
Manchin, a Democrat, would be responsible for appointing Byrd's replacement if need be. Byrd's term runs until 2013.
Byrd's absence comes as his fellow Senate Democrats have struggled to round up votes to advance their priorities. They hold 57 seats, and the chamber's two independents caucus with them. That leaves Democrats one vote short of the 60 required to end a Republican filibuster.
In recent years, Byrd has been slowed by age and health problems and confined to a wheelchair. In 2009, he was hospitalized three times. But he was in the Senate to vote for final passage of the healthcare bill in March.
In May, he came to a Senate hearing to read a statement cautioning colleagues against severely limiting the filibuster, a device he used to hold the Senate floor for 14 hours and 13 minutes in an unsuccessful attempt to thwart the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
During the 1940s, Byrd belonged to the Ku Klux Klan, a membership he later said he regretted. In 2008, he endorsed Barack Obama, who became the nation's first black president.
Byrd has had a lifelong passion for the Constitution, carrying a copy in his breast pocket — over his heart — and sponsoring legislation that requires schools to devote at least part of a day each year to teaching about the document. He also has been a fierce guardian of congressional prerogatives, resisting Democratic and Republican administrations' efforts to weaken Congress' power of the purse.
In 2006, he passed the late Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) as the longest-serving senator in history.
In November, on his 20,774th day on the job, Byrd became the Capitol's longest-serving lawmaker, entering the House on Jan. 3, 1953, and joining the Senate six years later.
Responding to a standing ovation from colleagues, he said, "I've loved every precious minute."