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Senate’s Strongest Institutional Defender Passes at 92

Early this morning, Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV) passed away at 92. Byrd died peacefully at approximately 3 a.m. at Inova Fairfax Hospital.

On June 12, 2006, Senator Byrd became the longest serving senator in history, and on Nov. 8, 2009 he became the longest serving member in Congress in history.

Having first been elected to the House of Representatives in 1952, Byrd’s record and career has been both controversial and stellar. But no one can question the influence and authority that Senator Byrd wielded both in West Virginia and Washington. For example, West Virginia’s legislature was so grateful to Byrd they named him “West Virginian of the 20th century.”

According to his bio:

Senator Byrd could not afford college.  In fact, his diploma from Marshall University would have to wait until 60 years after high school, when Senator Byrd was 77 years old.  In between high school and his undergraduate degree, though, Byrd enrolled in law school and, after ten years of classes taken while also serving as a Member of Congress, Senator Byrd earned his law degree from American University in 1963.

A fiery orator, Senator Byrd often took to the Senate floor to defend the issues closest to his heart. An avid dog lover, Byrd was enraged by the revelations of a brutal dog-fighting ring run by Atlanta Falcons’ quarterback Michael Vick. In a July 19, 2007 speech, Byrd condemned Vick and even called for the death penalty for anyone found guilty of such brutality to animals, calling the guilty parties “sadistic.”

In comportment and style, Byrd often seemed a Senate throwback to a courtlier 19th century. He could recite poetry, quote the Bible, discuss the Constitutional Convention and detail the Peloponnesian Wars — and frequently did in Senate debates.

Yet there was nothing particularly courtly about Byrd’s pursuit or exercise of power.

Byrd was a master of the Senate’s bewildering rules and longtime chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, which controls a third of the $3 trillion federal budget. He was willing to use both to reward friends and punish those he viewed as having slighted him.

Bob is a living encyclopedia, and legislative graveyards are filled with the bones of those who underestimated him

, former House Speaker Jim Wright, D-Texas, once said in remarks Byrd later displayed in his office.

Senator Byrd’s knowledge of the history and ever-diminishing dignity of the Senate was legendary. As his official bio states,

The Almanac of American Politics has stated that Byrd “may come closer to the kind of senator the Founding Fathers had in mind than any other.”  Senators from both parties have paid tribute to Byrd’s devotion to the Constitution.  He endeavors to make sure that the wisdom of the Constitution’s Framers is not forgotten and that the people’s liberties are protected.

The AP reports some of Senator Byrd’s more controversial stances:

Byrd’s accomplishments followed a childhood of poverty in West Virginia, and his success on the national stage came despite a complicated history on racial matters. As a young man, we was a member of the Ku Klux Klan for a brief period, and he joined Southern Democrats in an unsuccessful filibuster against the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act.

He later apologized for both actions, saying intolerance has no place in America. While supporting later civil rights bills, he opposed busing to integrate schools.

Senator Byrd was devoted to his wife of almost 69 years, Erma, who passed in 2006.

Whatever our personal politics and our opinion of Senator Byrd’s positions over his 50 plus years in the Senate, we should today mourn the passing of a great public servant who dedicated his life to the people of West Virginia and of the United States. Today is not a day for politics, but a day for celebrating the life and legacy of Robert Byrd.

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