Robert Byrd

Robert Byrd
President pro tempore of the United States Senate
In office
January 3, 2007 – June 28, 2010
Leader Harry Reid
Preceded by Ted Stevens
Succeeded by Daniel Inouye
In office
June 6, 2001 – January 3, 2003
Leader Tom Daschle
Preceded by Strom Thurmond
Succeeded by Ted Stevens
In office
January 3, 2001 – January 20, 2001
Leader Tom Daschle
Preceded by Strom Thurmond
Succeeded by Strom Thurmond
In office
January 3, 1989 – January 3, 1995
Leader George Mitchell
Preceded by John Stennis
Succeeded by Strom Thurmond
President pro tempore emeritus of the United States Senate
In office
January 3, 2003 – January 3, 2007
Leader Bill Frist
Preceded by Strom Thurmond
Succeeded by Ted Stevens
Senate Majority Leader
In office
January 3, 1987 – January 3, 1989
Deputy Alan Cranston
Preceded by Bob Dole
Succeeded by George Mitchell
In office
January 3, 1977 – January 3, 1981
Deputy Alan Cranston
Preceded by Mike Mansfield
Succeeded by Howard Baker
Senate Minority Leader
In office
January 3, 1981 – January 3, 1987
Deputy Alan Cranston
Preceded by Howard Baker
Succeeded by Bob Dole
Senate Majority Whip
In office
January 3, 1971 – January 3, 1977
Leader Mike Mansfield
Preceded by Ted Kennedy
Succeeded by Alan Cranston
Chairman of the Senate Committee on Appropriations
In office
January 3, 2007 – January 3, 2009
Preceded by Thad Cochran
Succeeded by Daniel Inouye
In office
June 6, 2001 – January 3, 2003
Preceded by Ted Stevens
Succeeded by Ted Stevens
In office
January 3 – January 20, 2001
Preceded by Ted Stevens
Succeeded by Ted Stevens
In office
January 3, 1989 – January 3, 1995
Preceded by John C. Stennis
Succeeded by Mark Hatfield
United States Senator
from West Virginia
In office
January 3, 1959 – June 28, 2010
Preceded by Chapman Revercomb
Succeeded by Carte Goodwin
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from West Virginia's 6th district
In office
January 3, 1953 – January 3, 1959
Preceded by Erland Hedrick
Succeeded by John Slack
Personal details
Born November 20, 1917(1917-11-20)
North Wilkesboro, North Carolina, U.S.
Died June 28, 2010(2010-06-28) (aged 92)
Falls Church, Virginia, U.S.
Political party Democratic Party
Spouse(s) Erma James (1937–2006)
Children Mona
Alma mater Marshall University
American University
Profession Attorney
Religion Baptist[1][2]

Robert Carlyle Byrd (born Cornelius Calvin Sale, Jr.; November 20, 1917 – June 28, 2010) was a United States Senator from West Virginia. A member of the Democratic Party, Byrd served as a U.S. Representative from 1953 until 1959 and as a U.S. Senator from 1959 to 2010. He was the longest-serving senator and the longest-serving member in the history of the United States Congress.[3][4][5]

Initially elected to the United States House of Representatives in 1952, Byrd served there for six years before being elected to the Senate in 1958. He rose to become one of the Senate's most powerful members, serving as secretary of the Senate Democratic Caucus from 1967 to 1971 and—after defeating his longtime colleague, Ted Kennedy—as Senate Majority Whip from 1971 to 1977. Byrd led the Democratic caucus as Senate Majority Leader from 1977 to 1981 and 1987 to 1989, and as Senate Minority Leader from 1981 to 1987. From 1989 to 2010 he served as the President pro tempore of the United States Senate when the Democratic Party had a majority, and as President pro tempore emeritus during periods of Republican majority beginning in 2001.[6] As President pro tempore, he was third in the line of presidential succession, behind the Vice President and the Speaker of the House of Representatives. He also served as the Chairman of the United States Senate Committee on Appropriations from 1989 to 1995, 2001 to 2003, and 2007 to 2009, giving him extraordinary influence over federal spending.

Byrd's seniority and leadership of the Appropriations Committee enabled him to steer a great deal of federal money toward projects in West Virginia.[7] Critics derided his efforts as pork spending[8] to appeal to his own constituents. He filibustered against the 1964 Civil Rights Act and supported the Vietnam War, but later backed civil rights measures and criticized the Iraq War. He was briefly a member of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1940s, but later left the group and denounced racial intolerance.[9]



Byrd was born Cornelius Calvin Sale, Jr.[10] in North Wilkesboro, North Carolina, on November 20, 1917.[6] When he was one year old, his mother, Ada Mae (née Kirby), died in the 1918 Flu Pandemic. In accordance with his mother's wishes, his father, Cornelius Calvin Sale,[10] dispersed the family children among relatives. Titus and Vlurma Byrd, the infant's uncle and aunt, were given custody, adopted him, renamed him Robert Carlyle Byrd, and raised him in the coal-mining region of southern West Virginia.[5][9][11]

Byrd was valedictorian of Mark Twain High School[12] and attended Beckley College, Concord College, Morris Harvey College, and Marshall University, all in West Virginia.[6] He was a member of Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity.



Byrd's wife, Erma Ora James (June 12, 1917 – March 25, 2006)[13] was born in Floyd County, Virginia, to Fred James, a coal miner, and Mary James.[14] She had one sister, Beulah Minton. At an early age, she relocated to Raleigh County, West Virginia with her family. There she met Robert Byrd while attending Mark Twain School.[citation needed]

On May 29, 1937, she married Byrd when both were 19 years old.[14] Only their parents attended the small ceremony at the home of Reverend U.G. Nichols.[citation needed]

Erma Byrd was a member of the Senate Wives' Club and was involved in Senate Wives' Red Cross projects.[14] In 1990, she was selected as Daughter of the Year by the West Virginia Society of Washington, D.C. She was later awarded a degree from Alderson–Broaddus College in 1991, and in 1994, Marshall University initiated the Erma Byrd Scholars Program. This recognition was followed by the Loyalty Permanent Endowment Fund of the West Virginia University Alumni Association, which established the Erma Ora Byrd Scholarship.[citation needed]

Byrd's mother, Ada Mae Kirby

In October 1997, the Erma Byrd Garden at the Graceland Mansion at Davis and Elkins College was dedicated. Erma Byrd received her Bachelor of Arts degree from Wheeling Jesuit University soon after, which was followed by the dedication of the Erma Ora Byrd Center for Educational Technologies on the campus.[14]

In May 1999, she was named Mother of the Year by the Thunder of the Tygart Foundation at the birthplace of Anna Jarvis, the surmised founder of Mother's Day. In the same month, Erma Byrd received the Graduate of Distinction Award from the Education Alliance in Charleston, West Virginia. In January 2004, the Erma Byrd Gallery at the University of Charleston opened.[14]

Sen. Byrd, his wife, Erma, and dog, Trouble.

On March 25, 2006, Erma Byrd died at age 88 after battling a lengthy illness.[14] Robert Byrd dedicated several buildings in honor of his wife, including the Erma Ora Byrd Hall nursing building at Shepherd University (June 2007),[15] and the West Virginia University Erma Byrd Biomedical Research Center (September 2008).[16]


The Byrds had two children, Mona Byrd Fatemi and Marjorie Byrd Moore; two sons-in-law, Mohammad Fatemi and Jon Moore; five living grandchildren, Erik Byrd Fatemi, Mona Byrd Moore Pearson, Darius Fatemi, Mary Anne Moore Clarkson, Fredrik Fatemi, and Jon Michael Moore (deceased); and seven great-grandchildren, Caroline Byrd Fatemi, Emma James Clarkson, Kathryn James Fatemi, Hannah Byrd Clarkson, Michael Yoo Fatemi, Anna Cristina Fatemi, and James Matthew Fatemi.[6]

Ku Klux Klan

In the early 1940s, Byrd recruited 150 of his friends and associates to create a new chapter of the Ku Klux Klan.[9]

According to Byrd, a Klan official told him, "You have a talent for leadership, Bob ... The country needs young men like you in the leadership of the nation." Byrd later recalled, "suddenly lights flashed in my mind! Someone important had recognized my abilities! I was only 23 or 24 years old, and the thought of a political career had never really hit me. But strike me that night, it did."[9] Byrd held the titles Kleagle (recruiter) and Exalted Cyclops.[9] When it came time to elect the "Exalted Cyclops", the top officer in the local Klan unit, Byrd won unanimously.[9]

In 1944, Byrd wrote to segregationist Mississippi Senator Theodore G. Bilbo:[17]

I shall never fight in the armed forces with a Negro by my side ... Rather I should die a thousand times, and see Old Glory trampled in the dirt never to rise again, than to see this beloved land of ours become degraded by race mongrels, a throwback to the blackest specimen from the wilds.
— Robert C. Byrd, in a letter to Sen. Theodore Bilbo (D-MS), 1944, [9][18]

In 1946 or 1947, Byrd wrote a letter to a Grand Wizard stating, "The Klan is needed today as never before, and I am anxious to see its rebirth here in West Virginia and in every state in the nation."[19] However, when running for the United States House of Representatives in 1952, he announced "After about a year, I became disinterested, quit paying my dues, and dropped my membership in the organization. During the nine years that have followed, I have never been interested in the Klan." He said he had joined the Klan because he felt it offered excitement and was anti-communist.[9]

In 1997, Byrd told an interviewer he would encourage young people to become involved in politics but also: "Be sure you avoid the Ku Klux Klan. Don't get that albatross around your neck. Once you've made that mistake, you inhibit your operations in the political arena."[20] In his last autobiography, Byrd explained that he was a KKK member because he "was sorely afflicted with tunnel vision —a jejune and immature outlook—seeing only what I wanted to see because I thought the Klan could provide an outlet for my talents and ambitions."[21] Byrd also said, in 2005, "I know now I was wrong. Intolerance had no place in America. I apologized a thousand times ... and I don't mind apologizing over and over again. I can't erase what happened."[9]

Early career

Byrd worked as a gas-station attendant, a grocery-store clerk, a shipyard welder during World War II, and a butcher, before he won a seat in the West Virginia House of Delegates in 1946, representing Raleigh County from 1947 to 1950.[6] In 1950, he was elected to the West Virginia Senate, where he served from 1951 to 1952.[6] After being elected to the United States House of Representatives, he began night classes at American University's Washington College of Law in 1953, but did not receive his law degree from the university until a decade later,[6] by which time he was a U.S. Senator. President John F. Kennedy spoke at the commencement ceremony in June 1963 and mentioned Byrd by name. Byrd also studied at The George Washington University Law School but did not receive an undergraduate degree until 1994, when he graduated from Marshall University.[5]

In 1951, then–State Delegate Robert Byrd was among the official witnesses of the execution of Harry Burdette and Fred Painter, which was the first use of the electric chair in West Virginia.[22] In 1965 the state abolished capital punishment, with the last execution having occurred in 1959.

Congressional service

In 1952, Byrd was elected to the United States House of Representatives for West Virginia's 6th Congressional District,[6] succeeding E. H. Hedrick, who retired to run for Governor. Byrd was re-elected to the House twice and served in the body from January 3, 1953, to 1959.[6] Byrd defeated Republican incumbent W. Chapman Revercomb for the United States Senate in 1958. Revercomb's record supporting civil rights had become an issue, playing in Byrd's favor.[6] Byrd was re-elected to the Senate eight times. He was West Virginia's junior senator for his first four terms; his colleague from 1959 to 1985 was Jennings Randolph, who had been elected on the same day as Byrd's first election in a special election to fill the seat of the late Senator Matthew Neely.

While Byrd faced some vigorous Republican opposition in his career, his last serious electoral opposition occurred in 1982 when he was challenged by freshman Congressman Cleve Benedict. Despite his tremendous popularity in the state, Byrd ran unopposed only once, in 1976. On two other occasions – in 1994 and 2000 – he won all 55 of West Virginia's counties. In his re-election bid in 2000, he won all but seven precincts. Shelley Moore Capito, a Congresswoman and the daughter of Byrd's longtime foe, former governor Arch Moore, Jr., briefly considered a challenge to Byrd in 2006 but decided against it.

In the 1960 Democratic presidential election primaries, Byrd – a close Senate ally of Lyndon B. Johnson – endorsed and campaigned for Hubert Humphrey over front-runner John F. Kennedy in the state's crucial primary.[23] However, Kennedy won the state's primary and eventually the general election.[24]

Public service records

An earlier portrait of Robert Byrd

Byrd was elected to a record ninth consecutive full Senate term on November 7, 2006. He became the longest-serving senator in American history on June 12, 2006, surpassing Strom Thurmond of South Carolina with 17,327 days of service.[3] On November 18, 2009, Byrd became the longest-serving member in congressional history, with 56 years, 320 days of combined service in the House and Senate, passing Carl Hayden, an Arizona politician.[4][5] Previously, Byrd had held the record for the longest unbroken tenure in the Senate (Thurmond resigned during his first term and was re-elected seven months later). Including his tenure as a state legislator from 1947 to 1953, Byrd's service on the political front exceeded 60 continuous years. Byrd, who never lost an election, cast his 18,000th vote on June 21, 2007, the most of any senator in history.[5][25]

Upon the death of former Florida Senator George Smathers on January 20, 2007, Byrd became the last living United States Senator from the 1950s.[26]

Byrd was the last surviving senator to have voted on a bill granting statehood to a U.S. territory. At the time of Byrd's death, fourteen sitting or former members of the Senate had not been born when Byrd's tenure in the Senate began, President Barack Obama among them.

Committee assignments

These are the committee assignments for Sen. Byrd's 9th and final term.

Filibuster of the Civil Rights Act of 1964

Majority Whip Byrd meeting with President Gerald Ford

Byrd joined with other Southern and border-state Democrats to filibuster the Civil Rights Act of 1964,[27] personally filibustering the bill for 14 hours, a move he later said he regretted.[28] Despite an 83-day filibuster in the Senate, both parties in Congress voted overwhelmingly in favor of the Act, and President Johnson signed the bill into law.[29] Byrd also opposed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 but voted for the Civil Rights Act of 1968. In 2005, Byrd told The Washington Post that his membership in the Baptist church led to a change in his views. In the opinion of one reviewer, Byrd, like other Southern and border-state Democrats, came to realize that he would have to temper "his blatantly segregationist views" and move to the Democratic Party mainstream if he wanted to play a role nationally.[9]

Because of his opposition to desegregation, Byrd was a member of the wing of the Democratic Party that opposed desegregation and civil rights imposed by the federal government. However, despite his early career in the KKK, Byrd was linked to such senators as John C. Stennis, J. William Fulbright and George Smathers, who based their segregationist positions on their view of states' rights in contrast to senators like James Eastland, who held a reputation as a committed racist.

Leadership roles

Drawer of the Senate desk used by Democratic leaders, including Byrd

Byrd served in the Senate Democratic leadership. He was secretary of the Senate Democratic Conference from 1967 to 1971.[6] He served as majority whip, or the second highest-ranking Democrat from 1971 to 1977.[6] From 1977 to 1989 Byrd was the leader of the Senate Democrats, serving as majority leader from 1977 to 1981 and 1987 to 1989, and as minority leader from 1981 to 1987.[6]

In 1976, Byrd was the "favorite son" Presidential candidate in West Virginia's primary. His easy victory gave him control of the delegation to the Democratic national convention. Byrd had the inside track as majority whip but focused most of his time running for majority leader, more so than for re-election to the Senate, as he was virtually unopposed for his fourth term. By the time the vote for majority leader came, his lead was so secure that his lone rival, Minnesota's Hubert Humphrey, withdrew before the balloting took place.

President pro tempore Byrd and House Speaker Dennis Hastert presided over a special joint session following the September 11, 2001, attacks. Here President Bush shakes hands with Byrd.

Appropriations Committee

Byrd was well known for steering federal dollars to West Virginia, one of the country's poorest states. He was called the "King of Pork" by Citizens Against Government Waste.[30] After becoming chair of the Appropriations Committee in 1989, Byrd set a goal securing a total of $1 billion for public works in the state. He passed that mark in 1991, and funds for highways, dams, educational institutions and federal agency offices flowed unabated over the course of his membership. More than 30 existing or pending federal projects bear his name. He commented on his reputation for attaining funds for projects in West Virginia in August 2006, when he called himself "Big Daddy" at the dedication for the Robert C. Byrd Biotechnology Science Center.[31] Examples of this ability to claim funds and projects for his state include the Federal Bureau of Investigation's repository for computerized fingerprint records as well as several United States Coast Guard computing and office facilities.[32]

Parliamentary expertise

Byrd also was known for using his knowledge of parliamentary procedure. Before the "Reagan Revolution", Byrd frustrated Republicans with his encyclopedic knowledge of the inner workings of the Senate. From 1977 to 1979 he was described as "performing a procedural tap dance around the minority, outmaneuvering Republicans with his mastery of the Senate's arcane rules."[33] In 1988, majority leader Byrd moved a call of the Senate, which was adopted by the majority present, in order to have the Sergeant-at-Arms arrest members not in attendance. One member (Robert Packwood, R-Oregon) was escorted back to the chamber by the Sergeant-at-Arms in order to obtain a quorum.[34]

President pro tempore

As the longest-serving Democratic senator, Byrd served as President pro tempore four times when his party was in the majority:[6] from 1989 until the Republicans won control of the Senate in 1995; for 17 days in early 2001, when the Senate was evenly split between parties and outgoing Vice President Al Gore broke the tie in favor of the Democrats; when the Democrats regained the majority in June 2001 after Senator Jim Jeffords of Vermont left the Republican Party to become an independent; and again from 2007 to his death in 2010, as a result of the 2006 Senate elections. In this capacity, Byrd was third in the line of presidential succession at the time of his death, behind Vice President Joe Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Scholarships and TAH History Grants

In 1969, Byrd launched a Scholastic Recognition Award; he also began to present a savings bond to valedictorians from high schools—public and private—in West Virginia. In 1985 Congress approved the nation's only merit-based scholarship program funded through the U.S. Department of Education, a program which Congress later named in Byrd's honor. The Robert C. Byrd Honors Scholarship Program initially comprised a one-year, $1,500 award to students with "outstanding academic achievement" who had been accepted at a college or university. In 1993, the program began providing four-year scholarships.[12]

In 2002 Byrd secured unanimous approval for a major national initiative to strengthen the teaching of "traditional American history" in K-12 public schools.[35] The Department of Education competitively awards $50 to $120 million a year to school districts (in amounts of about $500,000 to $1 million). The money goes to teacher training programs that are geared to improving the knowledge of history teachers and are known as a "TAH Grant".[36]

Senate historian

Byrd and Dr. Richard Baker, a Senate historian

Television cameras were first introduced to the House of Representatives on March 19, 1979, by C-SPAN. Unsatisfied that Americans only saw Congress as the House of Representatives, Byrd and others pushed to televise Senate proceedings to prevent the Senate from becoming the "invisible branch" of government, succeeding in June 1986.

To help introduce the public to the inner workings of the legislative process, Byrd launched a series of one hundred speeches based on his examination of the Roman Republic and the intent of the Framers. Byrd published a four-volume series on Senate history: The Senate: 1789–1989: Addresses on the History of the Senate.[37] The first volume won the Henry Adams Prize of the Society for History in the Federal Government as "an outstanding contribution to research in the history of the Federal Government." He also published The Senate of the Roman Republic: Addresses on the History of Roman Constitutionalism.[38]

In 2004, Byrd received the American Historical Association's first Theodore Roosevelt-Woodrow Wilson Award for Civil Service; in 2007, Byrd received the Friend of History Award from the Organization of American Historians. Both awards honor individuals outside the academy who have made a significant contribution to the writing and/or presentation of history.

Final-term Senate highlights

On July 19, 2007, Byrd gave a 25-minute speech in the Senate against dog fighting, in response to the indictment of football player Michael Vick.[39] In recognition of the speech, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals named Byrd their 2007 Person of the Year.[40]

For 2007, Byrd was deemed the fourteenth-most powerful senator, as well as the twelfth-most powerful Democratic senator.[41]

Byrd with farmers from West Virginia

On May 19, 2008, Byrd endorsed Barack Obama (D-Illinois). One week after the West Virginia Democratic Primary, in which Hillary Clinton defeated Obama by 41 to 32 percent,[42] Byrd said, "Barack Obama is a noble-hearted patriot and humble Christian, and he has my full faith and support."[43] When asked in October 2008 about the possibility that the issue of race would influence West Virginia voters, as Obama is an African-American, Byrd replied, "Those days are gone. Gone!"[44] Obama lost West Virginia (by 13 percent) but won the election.

On January 26, 2009, Byrd was one of three Democrats to vote against the confirmation of Timothy Geithner as United States Secretary of the Treasury (along with Russ Feingold of Wisconsin and Tom Harkin of Iowa).[45]

On February 26, 2009, Byrd was one of two Democrats to vote against the District of Columbia House Voting Rights Act of 2009, which added a voting seat in the United States House of Representatives for the District of Columbia and add a seat for Utah (Democrat Max Baucus of Montana also cast a "nay" vote).[46]

Although his health was poor, Byrd was present for every crucial vote during the December 2009 Senatorial healthcare debate; his vote was necessary so Democrats could obtain cloture to break a Republican filibuster. At the final vote on December 24, 2009, Byrd referenced recently deceased Senator Ted Kennedy, a devoted proponent, when casting his vote: "Mr. President, this is for my friend Ted Kennedy! Aye!"[47]

Political views


Portrait of Byrd as Majority Leader

Late in his life, Byrd explicitly renounced his earlier views favoring racial segregation.[48][49] Byrd said that he regretted filibustering and voting against the Civil Rights Act of 1964[50] and would change it if he had the opportunity. He said joining the KKK was, "the greatest mistake I ever made."[48] Byrd also said that his views changed dramatically after his teenage grandson was killed in a 1982 traffic accident, which put him in a deep emotional valley. "The death of my grandson caused me to stop and think," said Byrd, adding he came to realize that black people love their children as much as he does his.[51]

Byrd was the only senator to vote against both Thurgood Marshall and Clarence Thomas to the United States Supreme Court, the only two African-American nominees. In the former instance, Byrd asked FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to look into what Byrd believed to be the possibility that Marshall had either connections to communists or had a communist past.[52] In the latter instance, Byrd stated that he was offended by Thomas' use of the phrase "high-tech lynching of uppity blacks" in his defense and that he was "offended by the injection of racism" into the hearing. He called Thomas' comments a "diversionary tactic", and said "I thought we were past that stage." Regarding Anita Hill's sexual harassment charges against Thomas, Byrd supported Hill.[53] Byrd joined 45 other Democrats in opposing Thomas.[54]

For the 2003-2004 session, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People(NAACP)[55] rated Byrd 100 percent compliant with the NAACP's position on the 33 Senate bills they evaluated. 16 other senators received that rating. In June 2005, Byrd proposed an additional $10 million in federal funding for the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial in Washington, D.C., remarking that, "With the passage of time, we have come to learn that his Dream was the American Dream, and few ever expressed it more eloquently."[56]

In a March 4, 2001, interview with Tony Snow, Byrd said of race relations:

They're much, much better than they've ever been in my lifetime ... I think we talk about race too much. I think those problems are largely behind us ... I just think we talk so much about it that we help to create somewhat of an illusion. I think we try to have good will. My old mom told me, 'Robert, you can't go to heaven if you hate anybody.' We practice that. There are white niggers. I've seen a lot of white niggers in my time, if you want to use that word. We just need to work together to make our country a better country, and I'd just as soon quit talking about it so much.[57]

Byrd's use of the term "white nigger" created immediate controversy. When asked about it, Byrd responded,

I apologize for the characterization I used on this program ... The phrase dates back to my boyhood and has no place in today's society ... In my attempt to articulate strongly held feelings, I may have offended people.[57]

Clinton impeachment

Byrd initially said that the impeachment proceedings against Clinton should be taken seriously. Although he harshly criticized any attempt to make light of the allegations, he made the motion to dismiss the charges and effectively end the matter. Even though he voted against both articles of impeachment, he was the sole Democrat to vote to censure Clinton.[58]

Gay rights

He strongly opposed Clinton's 1993 efforts to allow gays to serve in the military and supported efforts to limit gay marriage. In 1996, before the passage of the Defense of Marriage Act, he said, "The drive for same-sex marriage is, in effect, an effort to make a sneak attack on society by encoding this aberrant behavior in legal form before society itself has decided it should be legal. [...] Let us defend the oldest institution, the institution of marriage between male and female as set forth in the Holy Bible."[59]

However, he opposed the Federal Marriage Amendment and argued that it was unnecessary because the states already had the power to ban gay marriages.[60] However, when the amendment came to the Senate floor, he was one of the two Democratic senators who voted in favor of cloture.[61]


He was pro-choice and in 1995 voted against a ban on intact dilation and extraction, a late-term abortion procedure typically referred to by its opponents as "partial-birth abortion", but voted for a ban on subsequent occasions. Byrd voted against the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, which recognizes a "child in utero" as a legal victim if he or she is injured or killed during the commission of a crime of violence.

In 2003, Byrd voted for the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act, which prohibits intact dilation and extraction.[62]

George W. Bush era

Byrd praised the nomination of Judge John Roberts to fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court created by the death of Chief Justice William Rehnquist. Likewise, Byrd supported the confirmation of Samuel Alito to replace retiring Associate Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.

Like most Democrats Byrd opposed Bush's tax cuts and his proposals to change the Social Security program.

Byrd opposed the 2002 law creating the Department of Homeland Security, saying it ceded too much authority to the executive branch.

He also led the opposition to Bush's bid to win back the power to negotiate trade deals that Congress cannot amend, but lost overwhelmingly. In the 108th Congress, however, Byrd won his party's top seat on the new Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee.

In July 2004, Byrd released the book Losing America: Confronting a Reckless and Arrogant Presidency about the Bush presidency and the war in Iraq.

Operation Iraqi Freedom

Byrd with Secretary of Defense-designate Robert Gates, November 30, 2006
Byrd with then-Lieutenant General David Petraeus, January 23, 2007

Byrd led a filibuster against the resolution granting President George W. Bush broad power to wage a "preemptive" war against Iraq, but he could not get even a majority of his own party to vote against cloture.[63]

Byrd was one of the Senate's most outspoken critics of the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

In a speech on March 13, 2003 he stated,

If the United States leads the charge to war in the Persian Gulf, we may get lucky and achieve a rapid victory. But then we will face a second war: a war to win the peace in Iraq. This war will last many years and will surely cost hundreds of billions of dollars. In light of this enormous task, it would be a great mistake to expect that this will be a replay of the 1991 war. The stakes are much higher in this conflict.[64]

On March 19, 2003, when Bush ordered the invasion after receiving U.S. Congress approval, Byrd said,

Today I weep for my country. I have watched the events of recent months with a heavy, heavy heart. No more is the image of America one of strong, yet benevolent peacekeeper. The image of America has changed. Around the globe, our friends mistrust us, our word is disputed, our intentions are questioned. Instead of reasoning with those with whom we disagree, we demand obedience or threaten recrimination.[65]

Byrd also criticized Bush for his speech declaring the "end of major combat operations" in Iraq, which Bush made on the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln. Byrd stated on the Senate floor,

I do question the motives of a deskbound president who assumes the garb of a warrior for the purposes of a speech.[66]

On October 17, 2003, Byrd delivered a speech expressing his concerns about the future of the nation and his unequivocal antipathy to Bush's policies. Referencing the Hans Christian Andersen children's tale The Emperor's New Clothes, Byrd said of the president: "the emperor has no clothes." Byrd further lamented the "sheep-like" behavior of the "cowed Members of this Senate" and called on them to oppose the continuation of a "war based on falsehoods."

Byrd accused the Bush administration of stifling dissent:

The right to ask questions, debate, and dissent is under attack. The drums of war are beaten ever louder in an attempt to drown out those who speak of our predicament in stark terms. Even in the Senate, our history and tradition of being the world's greatest deliberative body is being snubbed. This huge spending bill—$87 billion—has been rushed through this chamber in just one month. There were just three open hearings by the Senate Appropriations Committee on $87 billion—$87 for every minute since Jesus Christ was born—$87 billion without a single outside witness called to challenge the administration's line.

Of the more than 18,000 votes he cast as a senator, Byrd said he was proudest of his vote against the Iraq war resolution.[67] Byrd also voted to tie a timetable for troop withdrawal to war funding.

Gang of 14

On May 23, 2005, Byrd was one of 14 senators (who became known as the "Gang of 14") to forge a compromise on the judicial filibuster, thus securing up and down votes for many judicial nominees and ending the threat of the so-called nuclear option that would have eliminated the filibuster entirely. Under the agreement, the senators retained the power to filibuster a judicial nominee in only an "extraordinary circumstance." It ensured that the appellate court nominees (Janice Rogers Brown, Priscilla Owen and William Pryor) would receive votes by the full Senate.

Other votes

Byrd opposed the Flag Desecration Amendment, saying that, while he wanted to protect the American flag, he believed that amending the Constitution "is not the most expeditious way to protect this revered symbol of our Republic." Byrd cosponsored S. 1370, a bill to prohibit destruction or desecration of the flag by anyone trying to incite violence or causing a breach of the peace. It also provides that anyone who steals, damages, or destroys a flag on federal property—whether owned by the federal government or a private group or individual—can be imprisoned, fined or both.[68] In 2009, Byrd was one of three Democrats to oppose the confirmation of Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner.[69] After missing nearly two months while in hospital, Byrd returned to the Senate floor on July 21 to vote against the elimination of funding for the F-22 fighter plane.[70]

Ratings groups

Byrd received a 65-percent vote rating from the League of Conservation Voters for his support of environmentally friendly legislation.[71] Additionally, he received a "liberal" rating of 65.5 percent by the National Journal—higher than six other Democratic senators.[72]

In 2006, Byrd received a 67-percent rating from the American Civil Liberties Union for supporting rights-related legislation.[73]

Health issues and death

Byrd's health declined through 2008, including several hospital admissions.[74][75][76][77]

On January 20, 2009, Senator Ted Kennedy suffered a seizure during Barack Obama's inaugural luncheon and was taken away in an ambulance.[78] Byrd, seated at the same table, became distraught and was himself removed to his office. Byrd's office reported that he was fine.[79] On May 18, Byrd was admitted to the hospital after experiencing a fever due to a "minor infection",[80] prolonged by a staphylococcal infection.[81] Byrd was released on June 30, 2009.[82]

Byrd's final hospital stay began on June 27, 2010 at Inova Fairfax Hospital in Fairfax County, Virginia.[83][84][85] Robert Byrd died at approximately 3 a.m. EDT the next day at age 92 from natural causes.[86]

United States President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, former President Bill Clinton, West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin and members of Congress attended the memorial service for Byrd at the State Capitol in Charleston, WV, on July 2, 2010.

Vice President Joe Biden recalled Byrd's standing in the rain with him as Biden buried his daughter when Biden had just been elected to the Senate. He called Byrd "a tough, compassionate, and outspoken leader and dedicated above all else to making life better for the people of the Mountain State."[87] President Barack Obama said, "His profound passion for that body and its role and responsibilities was as evident behind closed doors as it was in the stemwinders he peppered with history. He held the deepest respect of members of both parties, and he was generous with his time and advice, something I appreciated greatly as a young senator."[88] Senator Jay Rockefeller, who had served with Byrd since 1985, said, "I looked up to him, I fought next to him, and I am deeply saddened that he is gone."[89] Former President Jimmy Carter noted, "He was my closest and most valuable adviser while I served as president. I respected him and attempted in every way to remain in his good graces. He was a giant among legislators, and was courageous in espousing controversial issues."[90]

On July 1, 2010 Byrd lay in repose on the Lincoln Catafalque in the Senate chamber of the United States Capitol, becoming the first Senator to do so since his first year in the Senate, 1959. Byrd was then flown to Charleston, West Virginia where he lay in repose in the Lower Rotunda of the West Virginia State Capitol. A funeral was held on July 2, 2010 on the grounds of the State Capitol where Byrd was eulogized by President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Governor Joe Manchin, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi, Senator Jay Rockefeller, Congressman Nick Rahall, Victoria Reggie Kennedy, and former President Bill Clinton. After the funeral services in Charleston, his body was returned to Arlington, Virginia for funeral services on July 6, 2010 at Memorial Baptist Church.[91] After the funeral in Arlington, Byrd was buried next to his wife Erma at Columbia Gardens Cemetery in Arlington, although family members have stated that both the senator and Mrs. Byrd will be reinterred somewhere in West Virginia once a site is determined.[91][92][93]

The song Take Me Home, Country Roads was played at the end of the funeral in a bluegrass fashion as his casket was being carried back up the stairs and into the West Virginia State Capitol Building.

On September 30, 2010 Congress appropriated $193,400 to be paid equally among Sen. Byrd's children and grandchildren, representing the salary he would have earned in the next fiscal year; a common practice when members of Congress die in office.[94][95]

Reaction to death

Multiple political figures issued statements following Byrd's death[96]:

  • Vice President of the United States (and therefore President of the Senate) Joe Biden: "A very close friend of mine, one of my mentors, a guy who was there when I was a 29-year-old kid being sworn into the United States Senate. Shortly thereafter, a guy who stood in the rain, in the pouring rain, freezing rain outside a church as I buried my daughter and my wife before I got sworn in ... We lost the dean of the United States Senate, but also the state of West Virginia lost its most fierce advocate and, as I said, I lost a dear friend.
  • Democratic Senator Chris Dodd: He [Robert Byrd] never stopped growing as a public official, and was a man who learned from his mistakes. He was more than a friend and colleague. He was a mentor to me and literally hundreds of legislators with whom he served over the past five decades.
  • Republican Senator Lindsey Graham: Senator Byrd was a valuable ally and worthy opponent. He will be viewed by history as one of the giants of the Senate.
  • Republican Senator Orrin Hatch: On the issues, we were frequent opponents, but he was always gracious both in victory and defeat. This is a man who earned his law degree while serving in the Senate, and who had a prodigious knowledge of ancient and modern history.
  • President Barack Obama: He [Robert Byrd] was as much a part of the Senate as the marble busts that line its chamber and its corridors. His profound passion for that body and its role and responsibilities was as evident behind closed doors as it was in the stemwinders he peppered with history. He held the deepest respect of members of both parties, and he was generous with his time and advice, something I appreciated greatly as a young senator.
  • Senate Republican leader Mitch McConell: Senator Byrd combined a devotion to the U.S. Constitution with a deep learning of history to defend the interests of his state and the traditions of the Senate. We will remember him for his fighter's spirit, his abiding faith, and for the many times he recalled the Senate to its purposes.
  • House Speaker Nancy Pelosi: Throughout his historic career in the House and Senate, he never stopped working to improve the lives of the people of West Virginia. While some simply bore witness to history, Senator Byrd shaped it and strove to build a brighter future for us all.
  • Fellow Democratic Senator from West Virginia Jay Rockefeller: Senator Byrd came from humble beginnings in the southern coalfields, was raised by hard-working West Virginians, and triumphantly rose to the heights of power in America. But he never forgot where he came from nor who he represented, and he never abused that power for his own gain.


Despite Byrd's periods of ill health, his succession was not immediately clear.[97] Initially, West Virginia Secretary of State Natalie Tennant announced that there would be no special election to fill the Senate vacancy until 2012.[98] However, after an opinion by West Virginia Attorney General Darrell McGraw that a special election could occur in 2010, the West Virginia Legislature passed a law allowing for an August 2010 special primary election and a November 2, 2010 special general election to fill Byrd's remaining term.[99][100] In the interim, Governor Joe Manchin appointed former aide and fellow Democrat Carte Goodwin to Byrd's seat.[101] Manchin was elected to the seat on Nov. 2, 2010.

In popular culture

Byrd had a prominent role in the 2008 Warner Bros. documentary Body of War directed by Phil Donahue. The film chronicles the life of Tomas Young, paralyzed from the chest down after a sniper shot him as he was riding in a vehicle in Iraq. Several long clips of Byrd show him passionately arguing against authorizing the use of force in Iraq. Later in the movie, Byrd has a one-on-one interview with Tomas Young in Byrd's Senate office, followed by a shot of Byrd walking beside the wheelchair-bound Young as they leave the Capitol.[citation needed]

A fictionalized version of Byrd, then the Senate Majority Leader, was a character in the Jeffrey Archer novel Shall We Tell the President?.[citation needed]

Byrd was an avid fiddle player for most of his life, starting in his teens when he played in various square dance bands. Once he entered politics, his fiddling skills attracted attention and won votes. In 1978 when Byrd was Majority Leader, he recorded an album called U.S. Senator Robert Byrd: Mountain Fiddler (County, 1978). Byrd was accompanied by Country Gentlemen Doyle Lawson, James Bailey, and Spider Gilliam. Most of the LP consists of bluegrass music. Byrd covers "Don't Let Your Sweet Love Die," a Zeke Manners song, and "Will the Circle Be Unbroken". He has performed at the Kennedy Center, on the Grand Ole Opry and on Hee Haw. He occasionally took a break from Senate business to entertain audiences with his fiddle.[citation needed] He stopped playing in 1982 when the symptoms of a benign essential tremor had begun to affect the use of his hands.[102]

Byrd appeared in the Civil War movie Gods and Generals in 2003 along with former Virginia senator George Allen. Both played Confederate States officers.[103]

The Creekdippers album Political Manifest features a song entitled 'Senator Byrd Speech' in honor of Senator Robert C. Byrd.[citation needed]

Published writing

  • 1989. The Senate, 1789–1989, Vol. 1: Addresses on the History of the United States Senate. ISBN 0-16-006391-4
  • 1991. The Senate, 1789–1989, Vol. 2: Addresses on the History of the United States Senate. ISBN 0-16-006405-8
  • 1993. The Senate, 1789–1989: Historical Statistics, 1789–1992, Vol. 4. ISBN 0-16-063256-0
  • 1995. The Senate, 1789–1989: Classic Speeches, 1830–1993, Vol. 3. ISBN 0-16-063257-9
  • 1995. Senate of the Roman Republic: Addresses on the History of Roman Constitutionalism. ISBN 0-16-058996-7
  • 2004. Losing America: Confronting A Reckless and Arrogant Presidency. ISBN 0-393-05942-1
  • 2004. We Stand Passively Mute: Senator Robert C. Byrd's Iraq Speeches. ISBN 0-9755749-0-6
  • 2005. Robert C. Byrd: Child of the Appalachian Coalfields. ISBN 1-933202-00-9
  • 2008. Letter to a New President: Commonsense Lessons for our Next Leader. ISBN 0-312-38302-9

See also

  • List of places named after Robert Byrd


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  26. ^ U.S. Senate Senators Who Have Cast More than 10,000 Votes. United States Senate Democratic Policy Committee Vote Information Office. 2009, January 3. U.S. Senate 
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  38. ^ Government Printing Office, 1995
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  46. ^ U.S. Senate Roll Call Votes 111th Congress – 1st Session. United States Senate. 
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