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Robert Byrd dies at 92; U.S. senator from West Virginia

The lawmaker, who took office in 1959, served longer and cast more votes than any other member of Congress in U.S. history.

June 29, 2010|By Johanna Neuman, Special to the Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Washington — Robert Carlyle Byrd, the West Virginia Democrat who was often called the conscience of the Senate for his devotion to the system of constitutional checks and balances and the prerogatives of power, died early Monday. He was 92.

Byrd, who served longer and cast more congressional votes than any other member of Congress in U.S. history since taking office in January 1959, died at Inova Hospital in Fairfax, Va., a family spokesman said.

He was admitted to the hospital late last week with what was believed to be heat exhaustion and severe dehydration as a result of the high temperatures in the capital. Byrd's office had announced Sunday that he was seriously ill.

As president pro tem of the Senate, he was third in line for succession to the presidency. The post of president pro tem now goes to Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, a Democrat from Hawaii.

West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin III, a Democrat, will appoint someone to finish Byrd's term, which ends in 2013.

Byrd's death marks another milestone in the demise of a postwar generation of "Old Bulls" who ran Congress for decades. Many of them -- such as Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.) and John W. Warner (R-Va.) -- have retired. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) lost his 2008 bid for reelection in the face of corruption charges. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) died last year.

Byrd, who was notorious as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee for steering federal funds and sometimes entire agencies to West Virginia, had not been as strong a presence in the Senate in recent years. But in May he showed up at a Senate hearing and read a statement cautioning colleagues against severely limiting use of the filibuster, a device he once used to hold the Senate floor for 14 hours and 13 minutes in an unsuccessful attempt to block the 1964 Civil Rights Act. His last vote was June 17 on a budget measure.

"I looked up to him, I fought next to him, and I am deeply saddened that he is gone," Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) said Monday. "He leaves a void that simply can never be filled."

President Obama said in a statement that the Senate "has lost a venerable institution and America has lost a voice of principle and reason."

Renowned for carrying a copy of the U.S. Constitution in his shirt pocket to brandish at colleagues and constituents, Byrd had a deep commitment to history. A master of Senate rules, he was by turns protective and disruptive of procedure, slowing debate with long, florid orations that invoked Greek philosophers, Roman generals and the Founding Fathers. But he could also pierce debate with a pointed comment.

When politicians were scrambling to create a Department of Homeland Security after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, he asked his colleagues: "Have we all completely taken leave of our senses? If ever there was a time for the Senate to throw a bucket of cold water on an overheated legislative process that is spinning out of control, it is now. Now!"

And as the Senate prepared to debate authorization for war in Iraq in early 2003, Byrd thrilled antiwar activists with his lament -- "Today, I weep for my country" -- and gave a speech that would be reprinted in several languages and posted on many websites -- no small achievement for a man who did not use a computer.

"We stand passively mute in the United States Senate, paralyzed by our own uncertainty, seemingly stunned by the sheer turmoil of events," he admonished. "We are truly sleepwalking through history."

He was sworn in as a congressman 17 days before President Harry S. Truman left the White House in 1953, and he died as a senator nearly six decades later. In three terms in the House and nine in the Senate, he said, his proudest legislative achievement was the defeat of the balanced-budget amendment in the mid-1990s, which he likened to "putting an ugly tattoo on the forehead of a beautiful child."

The "beautiful child" was the Constitution, and he was convinced that amending it by stripping Congress of its constitutional power of the purse would mar it forever. So when Congress passed the line-item veto in 1996, giving presidents blue-pencil authority over congressional appropriation, Byrd called it "one of the darkest moments in the history of the republic." Two years later, the courts agreed that the law crossed a line, ruling it unconstitutional.

Byrd was not always a champion of liberal causes. He had come of age as a member of the Ku Klux Klan and cast a "no" vote on the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 that prohibited discrimination against African Americans and others. He later renounced his actions in both cases and called his membership in the KKK "the worst mistake of my life."

Byrd was aghast whenever the Senate acceded to a president's wishes without debate or question. He was a stickler for the constitutional provisions for checks and balances that left Congress, known as "the people's house," in the lead on appropriations and taxation.

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