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Sen. Robert Byrd dead at 92; West Virginia lawmaker was the longest serving member of Congress in history

Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) served in the U.S. Congress longer than any member in history. The nine-term senator assumed office Jan. 3, 1959, after serving three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives.

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By Joe Holley
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, June 28, 2010; 4:52 PM

Robert C. Byrd, 92, a conservative West Virginia Democrat who became the longest-serving member of Congress in history and used his masterful knowledge of the institution to shape the federal budget, protect the procedural rules of the Senate and, above all else, tend to the interests of his state, died at 3 a.m. Monday at Inova Fairfax Hospital, his office said.

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Mr. Byrd had been hospitalized last week with what was thought to be heat exhaustion, but more serious issues were discovered, aides said Sunday. No formal cause of death was given.

Starting in 1958, Mr. Byrd was elected to the Senate an unprecedented nine times. He wrote a four-volume history of the body, was majority leader twice and chaired the powerful Appropriations Committee, controlling the nation's purse strings, and yet the positions of influence he held did not convey the astonishing arc of his life.

A child of the West Virginia coal fields, Mr. Byrd rose from the grinding poverty that has plagued his state since before the Great Depression, overcame an early and ugly association with the Ku Klux Klan, worked his way through night school and by force of will, determination and iron discipline made himself a person of authority and influence in Washington.

"Senator Byrd's story was uniquely American," President Obama said in a statement. " . . . He scaled the summit of power, but his mind never strayed from the people of his beloved West Virginia. He had the courage to stand firm in his principles, but also the courage to change over time."

Although he mined extraordinary amounts of federal largesse for his perennially impoverished state, Mr. Byrd's reach extended beyond the bounds of the Mountain State.

As chairman of the Senate appropriations subcommittee on the District from 1961 to 1969, he reveled in his role as scourge, grilling city officials at marathon hearings and railing against unemployed black men and unwed mothers on welfare.

He was known for his stentorian orations seasoned with biblical and classical allusions and took pride in being the Senate's resident constitutional scholar, keeping a copy of the Constitution in his breast pocket. He saw himself both as institutional memory and as guardian of the Senate's prerogatives.

Most West Virginians had more immediate concerns, and Mr. Byrd strove to address them. On the Appropriations Committee, he pumped billions of dollars worth of jobs, programs and projects into a state that ranked near the bottom of nearly every economic indicator when he began his political career as a state legislator in the late 1940s. Countless congressional earmarks later, West Virginia is home to prisons, technology centers, laboratories and Navy and Coast Guard offices (despite being a landlocked state).

Critics mocked him as the "prince of pork," but West Virginians expressed their gratitude by naming countless roads and buildings after him. He also was the only West Virginian to be elected to both houses of the state legislature and both houses of Congress.

As a young man, Mr. Byrd was an "exalted cyclops" of the Ku Klux Klan. Although he apologized numerous times for what he considered a youthful indiscretion, his early votes in Congress -- notably a filibuster against the 1964 Civil Rights Act -- reflected racially separatist views. As those views moderated, Mr. Byrd rose in the party hierarchy.

A lifelong autodidact and a firm believer in continuing education -- vocational schools, community colleges, adult education -- Mr. Byrd practiced what he preached. While in the U.S. House from 1953 to 1959, he took night classes at law schools. He received a law degree from American University in 1963 and is the only member of Congress to put himself through law school while in office.


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