Democratic Dilemma

Uneasy About Byrd Uncertainty

Sen. Robert Byrd, 90, has been ill much of the past year, leaving Democrats unsure what role he will play.
Sen. Robert Byrd, 90, has been ill much of the past year, leaving Democrats unsure what role he will play. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
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By Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Heading into the most critical legislative battle of the spring, Senate Democrats are privately wondering who will lead their fight to pass a $108 billion spending bill for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars that will also contain important provisions for stimulating the domestic economy.

Usually, the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Robert C. Byrd (W.Va.), would be the Democratic point man on the Iraq supplemental spending request from the White House.

But Byrd, at 90 the longest-serving senator in history, has been ill for much of the past year. That has sparked behind-the-scenes intrigue over his chairmanship of a committee that controls about $1 trillion in annual federal spending.

Those discussions flared again last week as public debate on the war funding vote neared, according to aides and senators who would discuss them only on the condition of anonymity. At a leadership meeting of about 15 Senate Democrats, they said, the talk of replacing Byrd came up as the senators realized the bill needs to be addressed, most likely in a public hearing next week.

The bill, along with a potential $30 billion legislative sidecar of economic stimulus, stands as the most important legislation Congress will consider during the current eight-week work period, and may stand as the final battle between this Congress and President Bush over his war policy. In addition to the stimulus money, Democrats hope to add several policy riders that would curtail the length of Iraq deployments and outlaw the use of certain interrogation techniques by the CIA.

As chairman, Byrd is nominally in charge of shepherding the bill through hearings and consideration on the Senate floor. But during a debate on Iraq war spending last year, Byrd at times ceded that public role to Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.). Last week, a subcommittee hearing that Byrd was supposed to preside over was canceled.

Late yesterday, committee aides announced that he will oversee a preliminary hearing on the spending bill today. White House Budget Director Jim Nussle is scheduled to appear.

Democratic aides said it was unusual for such a high-profile hearing to be announced on short notice. One suggested it would be a test of Byrd's hold on power.

"You're going to have to wait and see how the hearing goes," the aide said.

The Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call has reported that an effort is underway to oust Byrd, while the Hill has suggested that Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) has privately thrown himself into the mix to replace the ailing chairman. That would breach senatorial tradition because it would require leapfrogging a more senior colleague on the committee, Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii).

Byrd has responded with phone calls to colleagues to reassure them that his health is improving. One of those called was Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), who is standing by Byrd.

Byrd's office called the talk of his stepping down from the committee chairmanship "petty rumor-mongering" and said he will serve out the year.

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