Robert Byrd: Senate Defender, Leader, Appropriator

Robert Byrd: Senate Defender, Leader, Appropriator

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The death of West Virginia Democratic Sen. Robert C. Byrd marks the end of an era. He was not only the longest-serving lawmaker in U.S. history but the longtime top Democrat on the influential Senate Appropriations Committee, which writes the country's annual spending bills and doles out its earmarks.

Byrd, like Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., who died last year, belonged to a courtlier era in which comity, not partisanship, presided in the Senate. Aside from Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hawaii, who succeeded Byrd last year as Appropriations chairman and took office in 1963, no senators remain who were elected before 1975. Byrd took his House seat in 1953 and came to the Senate in 1959.

Byrd's orations, ranging on subjects from the Iraq war to the change of the seasons, cited Shakespeare, Bible verse and the Constitution he kept in his pocket. He was author of a four-volume authoritative history of the Senate, a guardian of its rules and traditions, and of its balance of power with the executive branch. Among those traditions is the filibuster, a procedure that the party in the minority has used to block legislation and nominees. It now requires 60 votes to cut off, a threshold Republicans have invoked on nearly every piece of sizable legislation since Democrats took control of the Senate in 2007. In response, Byrd argued not that the rules should be changed, but that Republicans should be forced to speak on the Senate floor, rather than merely indicate that they would do so.

Byrd took part in one such filibuster, speaking for more than 14 hours in 1964 during debate over that year's Civil Rights Act. He later said he regretted that action, and also renounced joining the Ku Klux Klan before he came to Congress. In later years he became a harsh critic of President George W. Bush's use of power and the war in Iraq.

The byzantine "Byrd Rule," enacted in 1985, has also had great influence. It blocks extraneous language from bills brought to the Senate floor under reconciliation, a procedure designed to ease enactment of tax and spending programs that cannot be filibustered. Senators cannot attach social policy or economic policy to reconciliation bills, at least not without waiving the Byrd Rule, which requires 60 votes. 

Do you have a favorite memory of Byrd? Post a comment below.

Byrd Links:

New York Times obituary
NYT Timeline
Los Angeles Times obituary
Washington Post: Filling Byrd's Seat
Photo Slideshows: Politico | Time magazine | Huffington Post
Video: Washington Post | Wonkette | Salon: Iraq War Speeches