Robert Byrd back in form for Senate health-care vote

By Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 23, 2009; A01

Since Robert C. Byrd arrived in the Senate in 1959, the senior senator from West Virginia has cast more than 18,500 votes.

Byrd has orchestrated and witnessed maneuvering. He has presided over the shortest session in Senate history -- not even one second long -- and presided for the longest continuous period -- more than 21 hours. He has thundered from the Senate well with rhetorical flourish.

And when success has hinged on just showing up and voting, he has done so.

This week, amid a historic blizzard, the 92-year-old senator arrived in the wee hours after midnight, and in the frigid minutes just after dawn. When an aide guided him in his wheelchair onto the chamber floor just after 7:30 a.m. Tuesday, his fellow Democrats leapt to their feet and cheered, for the third time in five days.

Their decades-long quest to reform the nation's health-care system was within reach, with 60 votes finally in hand after a weekend compromise, so long as every single Democrat voted. Byrd seemed to relish his contribution.

On Tuesday, he spent 25 minutes on the floor, making spirited small talk with fellow senators, including Thad Cochran (R-Miss.). He shouted "Aye" each time his name was called, then left the chamber to handshakes and backslaps.

Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), who sits next to Byrd in the chamber, took note of his cheery attitude this week. "He looks a lot better, he seems a lot better, than a few weeks ago," Dodd said. He added that Byrd is "clearly aware" of who his colleagues are, their families and their legislative interests.

This week, Byrd has talked to senators about intricacies of northern border issues and to administration officials about America's energy needs. On Monday, in addition to rolling into the Senate chamber at 1 a.m. to vote, his wheelchair leaving streaks of slush in the hallways, he did some business on behalf of West Virginians. He met with Environmental Protection Agency chief Lisa Jackson, at her request, in his offices, to continue talks on parameters for mining permits.

But Byrd's fragile health has caused him to miss more than 40 percent of the chamber's roll calls this year. And as the debate has grown more heated, Byrd's appearances have become a flashpoint in a legislative fight split precisely on party lines.

Democrats accused Republicans of mistreating the longest-serving member of Congress in history by forcing 60-vote hurdles at awkward times that left even the most robust senators grumbling. Republicans remained unapologetic that Byrd has been forced into dark-of-night and predawn votes, alleging a Democratic rush to approve health care is forcing the nonagenarian into precarious votes.

"I've been worried about Senator Byrd living through the physical trauma of the past few weeks. It is an inevitable thought when you see him rolled into the chamber at 1 a.m.," said Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.), who has served for 29 years with Byrd. "Compelling Senator Byrd to vote needlessly is a new Senate low mark."

"They have 60 votes," countered Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine). "They can produce 60 votes whenever they want."

The issue of Byrd's health, mostly whispered about over the past two years, reached a fevered pitch when Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) delivered a Sunday speech asking for prayers that a Democrat would not make the first of three anti-filibuster votes at 1 a.m. Monday. Democrats perceived it as a prayer for tragedy, inevitably leading to chatter about Byrd's mortality.

But Byrd, who helped write the very rules that Republicans are using to draw out the process, has only one complaint: Coburn's biblical reference point.

"The Bible says love thy neighbor as thyself. I would hope that we could debate the pressing issues in front of the American public on their own merits without appealing to the Almighty for obstruction, of which there seems to be no short supply in Washington," Byrd said in a statement. His spokesman, Jesse Jacobs, said Byrd is "just fine" as he casts these votes "with vigor."

"If he was severely ill, he would not have been able to make it in here for any of the votes -- whether it was 3 p.m. or 1 a.m.," Jacobs said.

Byrd has every intention of continuing to represent the people of West Virginia, the "good Lord willing," as he has said.

Byrd spent six weeks in an undisclosed hospital this summer after being admitted for a minor infection, only to develop a more serious staph infection. In January, he surrendered the chairmanship of the Appropriations Committee, suggesting "a new day" required new leadership.

By fall Byrd appeared energized and delivered a string of floor speeches, the most poignant being a tribute to the late Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), a longtime friend. In recent days, Byrd's inspiration has come from Kennedy, who called national health reform the "cause of my life."

"This is for Ted," Byrd told staff members before a recent vote.

There's a sweet irony in Byrd's effort to boost Kennedy's legacy. Health care became Kennedy's central cause only after Byrd defeated Kennedy for the majority whip post in 1971, sending the younger Kennedy into the policy-oriented world of committee work. Early rivals, Kennedy and Byrd became legislative brothers in arms later in their careers.

Byrd retains the position of president pro tempore of the Senate, which puts him third in the presidential line of succession. He has not performed the basic duty of that job -- overseeing the chamber's debate -- in many months. But the post provides him with security detail from the Capitol Police, who drive Byrd to and from his spacious home in McLean, where a live-in nurse assists him. His wife of nearly 68 years, Erma, died in 2006, but he still wears his wedding band.

Despite the fury around him, Byrd appears to be reveling in the moment. During Monday's 1 a.m. roll call, senators were asked to vote from their desks rather than while milling about the well of the chamber. Exactly the sort of formality Byrd appreciates.

Minutes past 1 o'clock, Senate staff members moved the old wooden chair from behind his desk so an aide could wheel Byrd into place. He grabbed Dodd's hand to greet him, then Specter's. When the clerk called his name, Byrd shouted "Aye!" with his right index finger pointed in the air. He then pumped his left fist.

A few minutes later, Byrd was wheeled out, accepting more hugs and pats on the back.

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