By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 8, 2007
Throughout the Iraq war, one of President Bush's loudest Democratic critics has been the longest-serving member of the Senate: Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia.
"Cross your fingers, pull out your lucky rabbit's foot, even nail a horseshoe over the Oval Office door -- but hoping for luck will never change the deadly dynamic in Iraq," Byrd lectured the White House last week from the Senate floor, his folksy eloquence well intact.
Yet the octogenarian lawmaker's voice was quavering as he spoke, his regal bearing a bit unsteady. It was another indication that all is not well with Byrd, an institution within an institution, who turned 89 in November after winning a ninth Senate term.
The war debate now unfolding in Congress is tailor made for Byrd, fusing his three celebrated Senate roles: Appropriations chairman (the legislation on the table is a spending bill); resident constitutional scholar (Democrats and Bush disagree on Congress's rightful role in war policymaking, and Byrd keeps a copy of the Constitution in his breast pocket); and ardent critic of the Iraq war.
Yet instead of leading the charge, Byrd deputized Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) to manage the high-profile floor debate. His public appearances are growing increasingly irregular. Last week, the senator delivered two Senate floor speeches and posted an opinion column on a progressive Web site. But he skipped the enrollment ceremony that Democratic leaders held before sending the first version of the war spending bill to the White House -- even though, as president pro tempore of the Senate, it is Byrd's job to "enroll" the bill. Instead, he inked his shaky signature to the parchment document beforehand.
The Senate issued a brief statement explaining his absence from the spending negotiations: "I have been feeling a bit under the weather for the past few days. Per the advice of my doctor, I will be resting at home today."
Aides said Byrd took an active role in crafting the spending bill that Bush wound up vetoing, and he remains in close contact with Democratic leaders as the debate rolls ahead. On Thursday, Byrd argued on the Senate floor in favor of sunsetting the 2002 Iraq war authorization and starting a war debate from scratch.
"He's very pleased that members of Congress and the American people have caught up with where Senator Byrd has been from the very beginning on this war," said Byrd spokesman Tom Gavin.
The senator's Democratic colleagues offer different explanations for Byrd's uneven state, ranging from old age to spring allergies to lingering grief from his wife's death last year. "You know, there are some limits with the senator's involvement, but he's part of this process, and he will continue to be," Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), said of Byrd's role in the Iraq debate.
Sen. Ted Stevens, a still-energetic 83, stood nearby on April 12 as his friend delivered a vivid, if meandering, floor tribute to Stevens's 13,990th day on the job, making the Alaska Republican the chamber's longest-serving GOP member. Byrd recalled his late wife, Erma, his childhood sweetheart whom he married in 1937, and reflected on his 90th year. "As Popeye the Sailor Man used to say, 'I yam what I yam, and that is all I yam,' " Byrd said.
Stevens said of Byrd, "When you get older, you do keep a lower profile." But he added, "When he's out there on the floor talking, he can outtalk a lot of people."
Nevertheless, the change of pace has spurred a change in tone among Byrd's colleagues. Although the senator started a new six-year term in January, his friends note that he speaks in more fatalistic terms, and colleagues have taken to addressing Byrd in a faintly valedictory manner.
During an April 17 debate on intelligence policy, Byrd appeared on the Senate floor and asked to make a few remarks about Iraq. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) was about to deliver a speech on the national intelligence budget, which he said would take about 10 minutes. As Byrd retreated, Wyden said, "Before he leaves, Senator Byrd has always been so kind to this senator. I appreciate it."
When Byrd's turn came, he reasserted the Senate's constitutional duty to challenge Bush: "The Senate must never -- hear me now, the Senate must never -- become a rubber stamp for any president, Republican or Democrat or independent or otherwise."
Then Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) took the floor. "I thank my distinguished colleague from West Virginia for his insight, as always, and wisdom on so many issues," she said. "He epitomizes what it means to be a senator, and we are honored and appreciative of his leadership."
Despite a rocky spring, Byrd continues to serve as a role model for the five, ahem, "senior" senators whose terms expire in 2008. Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), 77, recently announced that he would seek a sixth term, citing Byrd and Stevens, along with Sens. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii), and John W. Warner (R-Va.) -- all in their 80s, and all flirting with reelection next year.