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Robert Byrd, Longest Serving U.S. Senator, Dies at 92

Robert Byrd, the U.S. senator who set records for longevity in Congress while becoming known for his powerful oratory and mastery of legislative rules and traditions, has died. He was 92.

Byrd died at a suburban Washington hospital early today, according to his spokesman, Jesse Jacobs. He was hospitalized for symptoms of heat exhaustion and dehydration last week as temperatures in the region were in the upper 90s. Doctors subsequently discovered other, more serious conditions, his office said.

The West Virginia Democrat’s death leaves his party with 58 votes in the Senate, two shy of the number necessary to overcome Republican opposition to financial regulatory overhaul and the confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan. The seat likely will stay in Democratic hands as West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin, a Democrat, has authority to appoint a replacement.

The longest-serving member of Congress in history, with six years in the House followed by 51 years in the Senate, Byrd was a throwback to the days when lawmakers delivered fist-pounding speeches and unapologetically steered money to their home state.

President Barack Obama called Byrd “true champion” for West Virginia and “a voice of principle and reason” for the country.

Photographer: Consolidated News Pictures/Getty Images

American Senator and Democratic politician Robert Byrd, circa 1970. Close

American Senator and Democratic politician Robert Byrd, circa 1970.

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Photographer: Consolidated News Pictures/Getty Images

American Senator and Democratic politician Robert Byrd, circa 1970.

A ‘Profound Passion’

“He had the courage to stand firm in his principles, but also the courage to change over time,” Obama said in a statement. “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.”

West Virginia Senator Jay Rockefeller, a fellow Democrat, said it had been his “greatest privilege” to serve in the Senate with Byrd.

“I looked up to him, I fought next to him, and I am deeply saddened that he is gone,” Rockefeller said in a statement. “He leaves a void that simply can never be filled.”

Vice President Joe Biden, a former senator, called Byrd a “dear friend” and mentor, saying the Senate is “a lesser place for his going.”

Byrd led the Senate Appropriations Committee, which controls funding for government agencies, during Democratic majorities between 1989 and 2009. He turned over the chairman’s gavel at the start Obama’s term, remaining a member of the committee. “A new day has dawned in Washington, and that is a good thing,” he said in a statement announcing the move.

As the Senate’s president pro tempore, Byrd was third in line to the U.S. presidency, after the vice president and speaker of the U.S. House.

Rewarding Constituents

Byrd entered the Senate on Jan. 3, 1959, when Dwight D. Eisenhower was president. He would serve with 10 more presidents by winning re-election to eight more terms, and he rewarded his constituents by bringing billions of dollars in federal projects to the state. He won 64 percent of the vote in his last race.

Byrd was an unofficial caretaker of Senate customs, a guardian of precedents and procedures. He wrote a four-volume Senate history and kept a dog-eared copy of the U.S. Constitution in the three-piece suits he typically wore in the Capitol.

His so-called Byrd rule, adopted in 1985, prohibits the Senate from tacking on “extraneous matter” to spending bills. He strongly opposed the line-item veto power that Congress granted to the president in 1996. “I don’t think he ever forgave me for signing the bill,” Bill Clinton wrote of Byrd in his memoir. The presidential veto was overturned in court two years after it was enacted.

Byrd’s Oratory

Opponents sometimes derided his lengthy speeches, studded with references to noble Romans and ancient history. Yet even when he developed a tremor and walked with canes late in life, Byrd used rhetoric as a weapon to hammer policies and people he opposed.

Hours before the U.S. attack on Iraq in 2003, Byrd denounced President George W. Bush’s war strategy in a much- quoted speech.

“Today I weep for my country,” he said. “No more is the image of America one of strong, yet benevolent peacekeeper. Around the globe, our friends mistrust us, our word is disputed, our intentions are questioned.”

Byrd had made clear his opposition months earlier, when Bush sought advance Senate approval to attack Iraq. In a 2,200- word speech, Byrd declared the president was rushing Congress to back a “new Bush doctrine of preemptive strikes.”

Iraq War Vote

He later said his vote against invading Iraq was the best one he ever cast. In a 2004 book, Byrd wrote, “For a long while I have viewed with dismay each and every assault on the separation of powers, and the continual grasping and groping for more and more power by presidents of both political parties. But never with such alarm as now.”

A champion of impoverished workers in his state, Byrd vowed to steer $1 billion in federal projects to West Virginia when he became Appropriations chairman in 1989. His promise came true within two years. His dedication to the Senate was surpassed only by his commitment to channel federal money to a state where median annual household income in 2006 was $29,700.

The money built highways, bridges and buildings, many affixed with the name Robert C. Byrd. It also brought federal offices and jobs to West Virginia, including outposts of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Federal Aviation Administration and the Coast Guard.

Caustic Questioning

Byrd could be caustic with those who came before the committee. At a 2002 hearing, he derided then-Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill as a corporate executive with “millions of dollars in trust accounts.” In contrast, Byrd said, “I grew up in a coal miner’s home. I married a coal miner’s daughter.”

O’Neill responded, “I started my life in a house without water or electricity. So I don’t cede to you the high moral ground of not knowing what life is like in a ditch.”

Robert Carlyle Byrd was born on Nov. 20, 1917, in North Wilkesboro, North Carolina. His original name was Cornelius Calvin Sale Jr. After his mother died in the 1918 flu pandemic, he was renamed by the aunt and uncle who raised him in West Virginia.

Valedictorian of his high school class, Byrd worked as a butcher, produce salesman and welder before being elected in 1946 to West Virginia’s House of Delegates and then to the state Senate. He was elected to the U.S. House in 1952 and served three terms there until he won the first of his nine consecutive U.S. Senate elections in 1958.

Byrd’s congressional career stretched from the early civil rights era and war in Vietnam to the age of international terror and the Iraq war.

Klan Membership

On some issues, he changed with the times. As a young man in West Virginia, he joined the Ku Klux Klan, the white supremacist group that terrorized blacks and supporters of civil rights. In 1964 he filibustered against the landmark Civil Rights Act, blocking action with a 14-hour speech at one point.

Over the years, Byrd repeatedly apologized for his earlier involvement with the Klan. He also spent years repudiating his stance against civil rights laws and said his vote against the 1964 act was one of the few he regretted. Other regrets were supporting the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which expanded the war in Vietnam, and the USA Patriot Act, enacted after the 2001 terror attacks.

On other issues, Byrd stood firm, such as his opposition to allowing openly gay people to serve in the U.S. military. According to the memoir of his close friend, Edward Kennedy, Byrd once explained his understanding that ancient Rome had had a problem “with young military boys turned into sex slaves.”

Majority Leader

Byrd, majority leader of the Senate’s Democrats for 12 years, helped push the Panama Canal treaty through Congress during President Jimmy Carter’s administration. The treaty transferred canal ownership to Panama as of Dec. 31, 1999.

Byrd became the longest-serving senator in U.S. history on June 12, 2006, when he logged his 17,327th day in office. “I love the Senate -- and it has been my love for 48 years,” Byrd said in an interview that year. “I have a feeling of gratitude to the people of West Virginia who never failed in showing their faith and confidence in me.”

By July 2007, he had cast 18,000 votes, more than any of the other 1,890 senators who had served since the chamber’s inception in 1789.

On Nov. 18, 2009, he became the longest-serving member of Congress, with 20,774 cumulative days -- 56 years, 320 days --in the House and Senate.

“It is an extraordinary record of service, dedication and patriotism to the country,” Senator Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat, said in a tribute to Byrd that day. “No one knows this body better than Robert Byrd, and nobody’s served with the same energy and tenacity.”

His wife, Erma Ora James Byrd, who was his high school sweetheart, died in 2006 after 68 years of marriage. They had two daughters.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jim O’Connell in Washington at joconnell3@bloomberg.net

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