Wynnona Kirk, an assistant to Mr.Byrd and his son, Thomas T. Byrd, confirmed his death but did not cite a specific cause.
Courtly and dignified, Mr. Byrd had the appearance and manners of a Southern gentleman and a pedigree to match. His family had lived in Virginia since the 17th century and had achieved remarkable successes in business and politics.
The Byrds came to dominate state affairs with a Democratic machine that largely controlled political appointments and held a seemingly unshakable hold on the Virginia electorate.
The organization’s political philosophy was embodied, in part, by the anti-debt, “pay-as-you-go” fiscal policy that brought Harry Byrd Sr. to prominence in Virginia in the 1920s and remained a dominant force in state politics until the 1980s.
But the Byrds also embraced the tenacious injustice of state-enforced segregation. During Harry Byrd Jr.’s time as a state senator, the Byrd machine, under the banner of states’ rights, orchestrated Virginia’s “massive resistance” to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling that outlawed segregated public education.
Harry Byrd Jr. spent 17 years in the Virginia Senate before Gov. Albertis S. Harrison Jr. (D) appointed him to the U.S. Senate in 1965, when his father resigned for health reasons; the elder Byrd died the next year. Mr. Byrd won a special election in 1966 to fill the four years remaining in the term.
In 1970, Mr. Byrd joined the long train of conservative Southern Democrats who broke with the party in the second half of the 20th century. He abandoned his father’s party but not his father’s principles and won reelection as an independent. In 1976, he was the only independent reelected to the Senate.
In the chamber, he voted with the Democratic caucus on organizational matters and with conservative Republicans on substantive matters of legislation. He took little part in committee deliberations, where much of the Senate’s work is done, but he was punctilious about attending roll calls on the Senate floor: In 18 years, he was present for 96 percent of them.
Except in the realm of national defense, Mr. Byrd distrusted public expenditures for almost any purpose. Believing that less government is better than more government, he rarely introduced legislation of any kind. One bill he did sponsor restored U.S. citizenship to Robert E. Lee, the Virginia-born Confederate general during the Civil War.
Mr. Byrd’s commitment to economy in government extended to the operation of his Senate office. He returned thousands of dollars in expense money and declined some of his pay increases.
During Senate hearings, he sometimes pointed out to Treasury officials how high the federal deficit had risen in the brief period during which they were testifying. In 1978, he sponsored a bill to require a balanced federal budget beginning in 1981. The law was enacted but never enforced.