Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va.
Susan Walsh  /  AP
Senate Appropriations Committee Committee Chairman Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., arrives for a hearing in the Capitol Hill.
updated 6/15/2007 10:38:20 AM ET 2007-06-15T14:38:20

Age is finally catching up with West Virginia Sen. Robert C. Byrd in the winter of his 54-year career in Congress. At 89, the longest-serving senator in history and third person in the line of presidential succession has ceded major duties - such as handling appropriations bills on the Senate floor - to younger colleagues and aides.

Byrd continues to steer pork projects to his home state, rail against President Bush and the Iraq war and quote Cicero and the King James Bible now and then on the Senate floor. But as he walks haltingly with two canes and an ever-present assistant, he increasingly seems an anachronism in an Internet-age Congress where some members are young enough to be his grandchildren.

"I'm told that 90 is the new 80," Byrd, a Democrat, said in a statement issued by his office. "I am proud of my white mane, but I still long for the black hair of my youth."

'West Virginian of the 20th century'
Indeed, Byrd often seems wistful and frail, especially since the death of his wife, Erma, 15 months ago. His hands and voice quaver noticeably, and a January illness alarmed his friends and caused him to miss a vote. Although elected last fall to another six-year term, he clearly is contemplating his career's end.

On Tuesday at a Shepherd University ceremony naming a nursing building after Erma Ora Byrd, the senator told the audience his wife was in heaven, adding: "I'm going to meet her there."

The school, in Shepherdstown, W.Va., already had named a science center after the senator, who has used his Appropriations Committee perch to funnel hundreds of millions of federal dollars to the Mountain State over the decades. A grateful Legislature named him "West Virginian of the 20th century."

Collegial deference
In Washington, senators learned to respect and even fear his clout as he rotated through posts that included majority leader, appropriations chairman and president pro tempore. Colleagues still show deference as they wait patiently for him to turn a page or find his place in a text he's reading.

On Wednesday, Byrd struggled at times to chair an appropriations subcommittee meeting that was largely uncontentious. He read a nine-minute opening statement with little trouble, but he hesitated at unscripted moments.

When Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, asked, "Have you already voted on allocations" for the homeland security spending bill, Byrd did not respond. After an aide whispered to him, Byrd said, "Tomorrow afternoon."

Moments later, when Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., sought permission to speak, Byrd looked at him blankly. Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., sitting next to Byrd, said softly, "Senator Lautenberg," and the chairman repeated the name in a robust voice. Later, when the room fell silent, an aide slipped Byrd a note prompting him to declare the meeting adjourned.

Civil rights and Ku Klux Klan
On Thursday, Byrd chaired an hour-long Appropriations Committee meeting in which he again stuck closely to scripts written by his staff. Earlier this year, Democratic leaders tapped a younger committee member - Patty Murray of Washington - to oversee a contentious floor debate on Iraq war funding that was bound to require nimble responses to Republicans.

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Colleagues said Byrd agreed to have Murray lead the floor fight, even though the Iraq issue is close to his heart. Since the war's outset, he has ranked among Bush's harshest critics, a role that endeared him to many liberals and proved again that a skillful politician can remake his image if he stays in office long enough. His political origins were certainly conservative, including a stint in the Ku Klux Klan - membership for which Byrd has repeatedly apologized. His 14-hour filibuster of civil rights legislation in 1964 was among the longest in Senate history.

The ability to look to the future
Like contemporaries such as the late Strom Thurmond, Byrd recanted his segregationist past and used his ever-growing seniority to gain influence over spending and other matters. He repeatedly urged Congress to safeguard its powers against executive branch encroachment, and he has frequently accused the Bush administration of overstepping its constitutional prerogatives.

Byrd has personal security protection because, as Senate president pro tempore, he is in line for the presidency after the vice president and House speaker. For the most part, however, the title is purely ceremonial and Byrd generally settles for small talk - complimenting a man's tie or a woman's jacket - as he moves painstakingly to and from his Capitol office for votes.

Asked for comments for this story, Byrd said in a statement: "It isn't a news flash that I'm getting older or that I walk with canes. ... Age really is not the issue it may appear to be. When it comes to political office, what really matters are things like drive, determination and the desire to serve. The ability to look to the future with an eye toward the possibilities and how to make them reality is much more important than a number that denotes one's years on this earth."

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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