By Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 8, 2008
Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), 90, the longest-serving senator in U.S. history, announced yesterday that he is stepping down as chairman of the Appropriations Committee, one of the most powerful panels on Capitol Hill.
Byrd, whose penchant for steering billions of dollars to his state made him a legend at home and in the Senate, will relinquish his gavel under pressure from Democratic leaders who believe he has become too frail to continue in such an important job.
In a statement, Byrd cited the victory of President-elect Barack Obama (D-Ill.) as the moment that caused him to recognize the need for new leadership at the committee, which doles out more than $1 trillion a year in federal spending.
"A new day has dawned in Washington, and that is a good thing. For my part, I believe that it is time for a new day at the top of the Senate Appropriations Committee," Byrd said.
Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii), 84, the second-ranking Democrat on the panel for decades, is expected to succeed Byrd as chairman.
Byrd's action comes with several of the Senate's elder statesmen under fire, creating the potential for a new, and in some cases younger, generation of leaders on important committees.
Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), the longest-serving Republican in Senate history and a close friend of Byrd's, was convicted last month on seven felony counts for failing to disclose gifts and is awaiting the final results in his close reelection contest. Stevens is currently ahead by two percentage points. When he was indicted last year, Stevens stepped aside as the ranking member of the commerce committee and the defense subcommittee of Appropriations.
In the House, Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), 82, who in February will become the longest-serving member in that chamber's history, is facing a challenge to his chairmanship of the Energy and Commerce Committee, which reviews critical legislation, including health-care and oil-production bills.
Byrd, who turns 91 on Nov. 20, was hospitalized in February after a fall in his home. He suffers from a condition called essential tremor that is common among people his age.
At times he has let junior colleagues on the committee run hearings and negotiations. He has been unable to perform a host of public duties that come with his chairmanship and his status as president pro tempore of the Senate, which places him behind the vice president and House speaker in the line of presidential succession.
Byrd did not address whether he would remain as president pro tempore, which by tradition has been given to the longest-serving member of the majority party.
He said he will continue to serve as a rank-and-file senator -- he was elected to his ninth term in 2006 -- and on the Appropriations Committee, with a larger number of Democrats because of the majority's gain of at least six Senate seats in Tuesday's elections.
"This is a decision I made only after much personal soul-searching, and after being sure of the substantial Democratic pickup of seats in the Senate. I am now confident that stepping aside as chairman will not adversely impact my home state of West Virginia. God willing, I will continue to serve on the Appropriations Committee," Byrd said.
Byrd's colleagues had been quietly saying that they hoped he would give up the chairmanship voluntarily, rather than being subject to a secret vote early next year over his ouster.
Democratic Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV praised his fellow West Virginian, noting his parliamentary and constitutional expertise. "He is the conscience of the Senate, the guardian of our Constitution, and to all of us in West Virginia, he is our hero," Rockefeller said.
Byrd's political career began in the 1940s after a stint as a leader of his state's Ku Klux Klan. His early days in the Senate were marked by staunch opposition to civil rights legislation, a position he has since renounced.
His 50-year tenure on the Appropriations Committee has witnessed the funding of multiple wars, the fall of the Soviet Union, the 2001 terrorist attacks and the election of America's first black president.
"I have learned that nothing is quite so permanent as change," Byrd said. "It is simply a part of living and should not be feared."