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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.

The governor demanded that Mr. Byrd withdraw from the Democratic ticket, as did most of the state's newspapers, but friends and neighbors donated 50 cents here and a dollar there so he could keep his campaign going. He won with 57.4 percent of the vote and was reelected by larger margins in 1954 and 1956.

With both of West Virginia's Senate seats up for election in 1958, the 40-year-old congressman decided to make his move. Mr. Byrd lambasted President Dwight D. Eisenhower for his "lack of strong leadership" on foreign policy, his weak response to the Soviet scientific threat symbolized by the Sputnik satellite launch and his inability to stem the tide of recession.

Mr. Byrd won handily, even though the United Mine Workers initially opposed him and the coal companies worked to beat him.

In the Senate, Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson (D-Tex.), became Mr. Byrd's mentor, rewarding the freshman with a seat on the Appropriations Committee. In the House, Mr. Byrd had voted for the Civil Rights Act of 1957, the first significant effort to guarantee voting rights since Reconstruction. He also voted, at Johnson's behest, for the Civil Rights Act of 1960, which established federal inspection of local voter registration rolls. Eisenhower signed the bill into law.

But in 1961, when Johnson became vice president, Mr. Byrd allied himself with Richard B. Russell, the powerful Democratic senator from Georgia and architect of the filibuster against the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He joined Southern Democrats in opposition to the landmark legislation, which outlawed racial segregation in schools, public places and employment. Relying on licorice pellets and sips of milk for energy, Mr. Byrd filibustered for more than 14 hours in an effort to bury the legislation.

"Men are not created equal today, and they were not created equal in 1776, when the Declaration of Independence was written," Mr. Byrd proclaimed during the filibuster. "Men and races of men differ in appearance, ways, physical power, mental capacity, creativity and vision."

He opposed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and most of Johnson's "war on poverty" programs. "We can take the people out of the slums, but we cannot take the slums out of the people," he said. "Wherever some people go the slums will follow. People first have to clean up inside themselves."

His detractors labeled him a racist hillbilly, but quietly over the years he worked to shed that image. When he arrived in the Senate in 1959, he had hired one of the Capitol's first black congressional aides. When a vote on making King's birthday a federal holiday came up on the floor of the Senate in 1983, Mr. Byrd told an aide, "I'm the only one who must vote for this bill." In 2008, Mr. Byrd endorsed Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) for president.

Known for his detailed knowledge of bills under consideration and his familiarity with the arcane rules of parliamentary procedure, Mr. Byrd was elected secretary of the Senate Democratic Conference in 1967.

Taking on tedious and seemingly insignificant tasks, paying close attention to minor legislative and scheduling details and making himself available virtually around the clock, he became what The Washington Post called "the indispensable man."

In 1971, he ran for the position of Democratic whip and defeated the incumbent, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, at a time when the Massachusetts senator was distracted by a personal scandal. In 1969, Kennedy had driven a car off a bridge in Chappaquiddick, Mass., and a young female passenger drowned. Mr. Byrd relied on votes from Southern and border-state senators, including a deathbed proxy from his old mentor Russell.

When he became majority whip, Mr. Byrd was the third most conservative senator outside the South, but within weeks of assuming whip duties, his voting record began to moderate. Although he never relinquished his conservative, moralistic demeanor, he began to support most civil rights legislation, including the Equal Rights Amendment. He also continued to vote with Senate liberals on housing, unemployment benefits, Social Security and public works projects.

"A leadership role is different," he said, "and one does represent a broader constituency."

He was elected majority leader by acclamation in 1977, at a time of new legislative and investigative opportunities for the Democrats, thanks to the Watergate political scandal that led to President Richard M. Nixon's resignation. Mr. Byrd had the legislative, leadership and management skills to take advantage.

Although he supported the legislative program of the new Democrat in the White House, Jimmy Carter, Mr. Byrd and Carter occasionally clashed. He chastised the president for failing to consult with Senate leadership on key appointments and legislative policies and refused to waste time on bills that, as far as he was concerned, had little chance of passing.

He used his legislative skills to save Carter's foreign policy initiatives from certain defeat. He broadened support for the administration's proposal to withdraw U.S. troops from South Korea by introducing a compromise amendment that ensured congressional participation in the final plan. He also smoothed passage of the controversial Panama Canal treaties.

He continued as minority leader from 1981 to 1987 and served a second term as majority leader in 1987-88. "Once the Democrats lost their majority, they were looking for something else, someone who could put together an agenda and speak effectively for what they wanted to do," said Mann of the Brookings Institution. "They didn't want [Byrd] being their public representative."

In 1989, Mr. Byrd became chairman of the Appropriations Committee and soon proclaimed, "I want to be West Virginia's billion-dollar industry." He succeeded.

The economically distressed state became home to an FBI fingerprint center in Clarksburg, Treasury and IRS offices in Parkersburg, a Fish and Wildlife Service training center in Shepherdstown, a federal prison in Beckley, a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives office in Martinsburg and a NASA research center in Wheeling. He made an unsuccessful effort to move the CIA to West Virginia.

West Virginia is dotted with more than 30 federal projects named after Mr. Byrd, including two Robert C. Byrd U.S. courthouses, four Robert C. Byrd stretches of roadway, a Robert C. Byrd Bridge, two Robert C. Byrd interchanges, a Robert C. Byrd Locks and Dam project and the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope.

Mr. Byrd was reelected in 2000 with 78 percent of the vote, compared with 20 percent for his closest rival, the largest margin in his long career.

"West Virginia has always had four friends," he said that election night, "God Almighty, Sears Roebuck, Carter's Liver Pills and Robert C. Byrd."


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