Byrd Steps Down as Appropriations Panel Chairman

By Andrew Taylor | November 7, 2008 | 5:30 PM EST
Washington (AP) - Sen. Robert Byrd, the longest-serving senator in history, is stepping down from his cherished post as chairman of the Appropriations Committee.
Byrd, 90, has become increasingly frail in recent years, and the move didn't come as a surprise.
The West Virginia Democrat is a Senate icon and a legend in his own state, where he's single-handedly responsible for directing huge sums of federal largess for roads, universities, and economic development projects. It was a perk of his powerful perch as chairman or top minority member of the panel for the past two decades.
Before that, he was the Senate's Democratic leader for 12 years.
Byrd said Friday he made the decision voluntarily, deciding it's time for new leadership on the committee, which is among the most important in Congress for its control over more than $1 trillion in federal agencies' budgets.
"A new day has dawned in Washington, and that is a good thing. For my part, I believe that it is time for a new day at the top of the Senate Appropriations Committee," Byrd said in a statement. He said he would remain as chairman of the subcommittee that writes the budget for the Department of Homeland Security.
Byrd will be replaced by Hawaii Democrat Daniel Inouye, 84, who's served in the Senate since 1963, and also has a reputation for shipping federal dollars back to his state. Inouye would take over in January when the new Congress convenes.
While the decision was made by Byrd, it came after a monthslong whispering campaign by some of his Senate colleagues and their staff aides in hopes of easing him out. Byrd withstood the pressure earlier this year, but it resumed in recent days.
Byrd did not make reference to the leadership pressure in his statement, though he had criticized Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., over an account in that cited anonymous sources as saying Reid was now seeking to ease Byrd out of his chairmanship.
"I want to stress that this is a decision I made only after much personal soul-searching, and after being sure of the substantial Democratic pickup of seats in the Senate," Byrd said. "I am now confident that stepping aside as chairman will not adversely impact my home state of West Virginia."
Byrd has become significantly more frail - and sometimes prone to emotional outbursts - since Erma, his wife of almost 69 years, died two years ago. He has taken to a wheelchair and reads his speeches.
Byrd's political rise began in the coalfields of West Virginia. The adopted son of a miner, he grew up as poor as any American politician, living in a house without electricity, running water or indoor plumbing. He quickly rose through the West Virginia House and Senate and the U.S. House before winning election to the Senate in 1958.
In the Senate, Byrd gained a reputation for hard work, mastery of the rules and a sometimes imperious leadership style. He once said that as majority leader, he "ran the Senate like a stern parent."
More recently, he's been a mentor to many senators, including Majority Leader Reid and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.
"Senator Byrd taught me, from my very first day in the Senate, that no one person is bigger or more important than the Senate as a whole," Murray said. "Today is just one more example of that legendary affection for the Senate."
Byrd won a ninth term two years ago after becoming an unlikely darling of the liberal blogosphere for his early, fervent opposition to the Iraq war while many other party leaders supported President Bush on the war.
He nonetheless remains a throwback to a previous era. While young people today program iPods and design home pages on, Byrd got Congress to require schools and colleges to teach about the Constitution every Sept. 17, the day the document was adopted in 1787. He recites poetry from the Senate floor, welcoming the seasons, and he still references the Roman Senate in making analogies about present-day decisions.
He's also come a long way in his views on race. He participated in an unsuccessful filibuster of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. As a young man, he joined the Ku Klux Klan, a mistake he has been saddled with since the early 1940s. But he also endorsed Barack Obama to win his party's nomination and said Friday that he's excited about his presidency.
"To be serving in the Senate at such a momentous time in our history fills me with enormous pride," Byrd said. "I endorsed President-elect Obama because I believed that we had taken the wrong course both at home and abroad. I am delighted with his victory."
Byrd remains the Senate's president pro tempore, a largely symbolic post reserved for the longest-serving member of the majority party. It puts him third in the line of presidential succession after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
Sen. Robert Byrd, the longest-serving senator in history, is stepping down from his cherished post as chairman of the Appropriations Committee.