Image: Sen. Robert Byrd
Susan Walsh  /  AP file
Sen. Robert Byrd on July 17, 2008, on Capitol Hill in Washington.
updated 7/21/2009 2:53:25 PM ET 2009-07-21T18:53:25

Robert Byrd, the longest serving senator in history, returned to the chamber Tuesday after being absent for more than two months due to illness.

The 91-year-old West Virginia Democrat, in a now-familiar wheelchair, cast his first vote since May on an amendment to a key defense policy bill.

Byrd was first elected to the Senate in 1958, and in 2006 was re-elected for a record ninth six-year term. Last November he stepped down as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, but he remains the Senate's president pro tempore, a largely symbolic post reserved for the longest-serving member of the Senate's majority party. That puts him third in line of presidential succession after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

He was hospitalized May 15 for an infection. His stint in the hospital was extended when he developed a more severe infection, but he was recently released.

Byrd voted to extend production of F-22 fighter planes, but was on the losing end of the 58-40 vote.

That vote was of critical importance to Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., a longtime friend and ally. The F-22's engines are made in Connecticut by United Technologies Corp.'s Pratt & Whitney subsidiary.

"He said he wanted to come in and do this for Sen. Dodd," said spokesman Jesse Jacobs.

Byrd said in a statement that it was "wonderful to be back in the august body where I have served for more than 50 years."

Byrd's office says he is expected to ease back into his duties as Senator and hopes to return to vote on the nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court and on key legislation such as health care and climate change.

His slower pace has not affected his ability, as a former Senate majority leader and chairman of the Appropriations Committee, to direct millions of dollars to West Virginia for roads, buildings and economic development projects.

Byrd has become frail in recent years, especially after the 2006 death of Erma, his wife of 69 years. He infrequently speaks on the floor.

Byrd left the building shortly after the vote to return to his home in the Washington suburbs, said spokesman Jacobs.

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