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Tim Kaine wants to ‘change the trajectory’ of his ‘Byrd seat,’ long held by segregationists

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) at a news conference Jan. 18. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

An irony struck Sen. Tim Kaine as he argued for his voting rights bill on the Senate floor Wednesday.

Here he was, in a seat once held by infamous segregationist Harry F. Byrd Sr., who had used the filibuster to oppose voting rights legislation, and now Kaine (D-Va.) was advocating changing the filibuster to pass voting rights legislation. Meanwhile, he noted, he couldn’t find a Republican ally on the bill — including his friend Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), who held a seat once occupied by Lyndon B. Johnson, who championed the Civil Rights Act and signed it as president.

“I inhabit a seat that for years was called the ‘Byrd seat’ in the Senate, inhabited for 50 years by Harry Byrd Sr. and Harry Byrd Jr., who were known for their virulent efforts to deprive African Americans of civil rights, including frequent extended filibusters on this floor against voting rights,” he told Senate colleagues.

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In an interview Wednesday night, Kaine said that legacy “weighed heavily” on him over the past year as he helped lead the charge on voting rights — a push that culminated late Wednesday in yet another Republican filibuster that blocked the legislation, plus a failed vote to change the filibuster rules, with Sens. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) joining Republicans to oppose it. Kaine had advocated returning to the “talking filibuster,” as opposed to the current 60-vote threshold required to end debate.

“I wanted to change the trajectory of the seat that I sit in,” Kaine told The Washington Post. “Not just by being one vote. But I was happy to be asked to play a role in this even though I’m not on any of the relevant committees … because this seat has a history to it, and history matters to Virginia.”

The voting rights legislation pushed by Democrats would restore provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act and create new federal standards for election laws to expand voting access. Democrats have said those standards are intended to counteract restrictive laws passed in Republican-led states in the wake of former president Donald Trump’s false claims of voter fraud.

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Republicans, in turn, labeled the legislation federal overreach and a Democratic power grab. Kaine countered that after Virginia passed new laws that expanded voting access, the state elected a Republican governor in November.

Kaine had invoked the Byrd name several times while appealing to Senate colleagues to support voting rights legislation. Harry F. Byrd Sr., the leader of the “Byrd organization” that steered Virginia politics for decades, served as governor in the late 1920s and was known for his strict fiscal discipline. He entered the U.S. Senate in 1933, where he remained for more than 30 years and opposed civil rights.

Following the 1954 Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, Byrd became the chief architect of the “Massive Resistance” to school integration and pushed schools to close rather than comply with the law. He was among the Southern Democrats to sign the “Southern Manifesto” against racial integration. And for years, he participated in their strategic filibusters intended to torpedo voting and civil rights legislation, at times using his position as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee to hold tax legislation hostage as the Kennedy and Johnson administrations pursued civil rights, said Adam Jentleson, author of “Kill Switch: The Rise of the Modern Senate and Crippling of American Democracy.”

“What he did was he made the Senate the epicenter of Massive Resistance, and what was significant about the Southern Manifesto, which laid the groundwork for Massive Resistance to civil rights, is it had the authority of the Senate attached to it. And that gave it enormous clout,” said Jentleson, former deputy chief of staff to late Senate majority leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.).

In 1949, Byrd exalted in “one of the most notable victories in our history” when Southern Democrats managed to raise the bar even higher to clear a filibuster, requiring a full two-thirds majority to cut off debate, according to the book “Delaying the Dream: Southern Senators and the Fight Against Civil Rights, 1938-1965,” by Keith M. Finley. The rule change paved the way for the infamous marathon filibusters against civil rights by Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) and the other notoriously segregationist Byrd — Sen. Robert Byrd (no relation), a West Virginia Democrat.

But by the mid-1960s, as Southern Democrats’ power began to wane, Harry Byrd appeared almost resigned to the inevitable; he even relented on Johnson’s tax bill, Jentleson said. When asked by a Newsweek reporter whether he would participate in the filibuster against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Byrd said he would “do his part,” then added: “But you know we can’t stop this bill. We can’t deny the Negroes a basic constitutional right to vote,” according to Finley’s book.

Kaine said Wednesday that the difference between Harry Byrd Sr. and Robert Byrd is that Robert Byrd, a former Klansman, later apologized for his years-long crusade against civil rights, whereas Harry Byrd never did.

“When he was pushing the Southern Manifesto, when he was pushing Massive Resistance, when he was pushing schools to close rather than integrate, when he was filibustering these bills, he did it without apology,” Kaine said.

Harry Byrd Sr. retired from the Senate in 1965 and died in 1966. His son Harry Byrd Jr. — who had been a staunch supporter of his father’s Massive Resistance campaign and carried it out in the Virginia state Senate — held his U.S. Senate seat until 1983. Kaine, who had gotten to know Byrd Jr. in the last years of his life, attended his funeral in 2013.

In the ensuing years, the Harry Byrd name came down from sites across Virginia, including on a middle school and a highway honoring Byrd Sr. and a Shenandoah University business school honoring Byrd Jr. A statue of Byrd Sr. was removed from the Virginia Capitol grounds last year.

On Wednesday, despite the failure of the voting legislation and the filibuster rule change, Kaine said he was not done trying to change the trajectory of his seat on voting rights.

“The history of voting rights in particular demonstrates that a failed vote is often the foundation of the next success,” Kaine said. “This is not one and done. ... I have to let the emotions of today recollect in tranquility for a day or two before I’m sure I know what the next steps are, but I know all 50 of my colleagues are saying there are definitely next steps.”