West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd Dies At 92

Robert Carlyle Byrd, the longest-serving U.S. senator ever, died early Monday in a hospital near Washington. Byrd, 92, was an institution himself, serving more than 51 years in the Senate and six in the U.S. House. A West Virginia Democrat, Byrd was a master of Senate rules, author of its definitive history and provider of hundreds of millions of dollars for his home state.

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Robert Carlyle Byrd, the longest-serving U.S. senator ever, died early this morning in a hospital near Washington, D.C. The West Virginia Democrat was 92. Byrd was the adopted son of a coal miner and the first person in his family even to finish second grade, let alone law school. He would become a living institution in the Senate: twice its majority leader, chairman of the Appropriations Committee, master and drafter of Senate rules, and the author of its definitive history.

NPR's David Welna has this remembrance.

DAVID WELNA: Robert C. Byrd was a man fiercely proud to be West Virginia's senior senator. And as he told it in a 2007 interview, his people were just as proud of him. There were four things Byrd said that West Virginians believed in.

Senator ROBERT C. BYRD (Democrat, West Virginia): God almighty, Sears Roebuck, Carvers little liver pills and Robert C. Byrd - and not necessarily in that order.

WELNA: More than three dozen places in West Virginia bear Byrd's name. Most were built with the hundreds of millions of dollars he steered to his state, as the longtime chairman of the Appropriations Committee. He was earlier a passionate segregationist who once mounted a 14-hour filibuster against the Civil Rights Act.

But in January 2009, on the day he completed 50 years in the Senate, Byrd said that institution had changed him.

Sen. BYRD: From my opposition to the 1964 Civil Rights Act to my role in securing the funds for the building of the memorial to Martin Luther King, from my support for the war in Vietnam to my opposition to Mr. Bush's war with Iraq, I have served here. And I have served every second of every blessed minute of it.

WELNA: Still, over the years, Byrd grew increasingly disillusioned with the amount of fundraising that had to be done to win a Senate seat. In a 2001 floor speech, Byrd recalled spending only $50,000 on his first Senate race in 1958.

Sen. BYRD: If it had depended upon money, I would've been out at the beginning. I would never have gotten to first base. The current system is rotten. It's putrid. It stinks.

WELNA: Byrd also bemoaned that partisanship had come to polarize what had once been a more collegial Senate. But there was clearly affection for Byrd himself from both sides of the aisle. Here's Republican leader Mitch McConnell on Byrd's 50th anniversary in the Senate.

Senator MITCH MCCONNELL (Republican, Kentucky): Through the support of his beloved Irma, his legendary devotion to our Constitution, and his tireless will to improve the lives of the people of his state, the senior senator from West Virginia has accomplished a remarkable feat.

WELNA: And Pennsylvania Republican-turned-Democrat Arlen Specter noted Byrd's insistence that the separate branches of government be kept co-equal.

Senator ARLEN SPECTER (Democrat, Pennsylvania): He hasn't served under any president. He has served with presidents.

WELNA: That attitude could be heard in 2008, when Byrd derisively dismissed pressure from the White House to keep domestic spending out of a bill funding the war in Iraq.

Sen. BYRD: The president claims that by adding funding for America to this bill, we're holding money for the troops hostage. Oh, my heavens, what hogwash.

WELNA: In that 2007 interview, Byrd described himself as an advocate.

Sen. BYRD: My people have a champion in me. They need a champion. The Constitution needs a champion. The Constitution, we must defend.

WELNA: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid declared Byrd more than a champion.

Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada): There are champions among us. There are giants as well. I have served in public office a long time, but no one can dispute the fact, as far as I'm concerned, that Robert Byrd is a giant.

WELNA: I asked Byrd in 2007 how much longer he planned to serve in the Senate. His reply could be a fitting epitaph.

Sen. BYRD: When God calls me home - and I would like nothing better than to be in the heavenly senate of angels.

WELNA: David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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