Sen. Byrd Surpasses Thurmond's Tenure Mark

Sen. Robert Byrd, the West Virginia Democrat, is the new record holder for serving the longest in the United States Senate. Byrd, who was first elected to the Senate in 1958, has broken the record held by the late Strom Thurmond.

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On January 3, 1959, a fiddle playing, bible quoting, adopted son of a coal miner was sworn in for the first time to the U.S. Senate and today that senator, West Virginia Democrat Robert C. Byrd, became the longest serving member of the Senate in American history. He eclipsed the late Strom Thurmond's record and although he now walks with two canes, Senator Byrd is not about to bow out. He's now seeking a ninth term.

NPR's David Welna spoke with the dean of the Senate this afternoon at the U.S. Capitol.

DAVID WELNA reporting:

Pushing lunch aside at his desk, 88 year old Robert Byrd says this is indeed a special day for him, but not because of the new record he set.

Senator ROBERT BYRD (Democrat, West Virginia): It's my wife's birthday. Irma's birthday. I love her. She was the greatest woman of my life. God gave her to me for 69 years, almost.

WELNA: Irma Byrd, who died in March, would have turned 89 today. It's God's design, her widower says, then adds he thanks the lord for sparing him.

Senator BYRD: God let me live this long and the people have let me serve and have wanted me to serve and they've placed their confidence in me and this is exactly what Irma would want me to do. Keep on, keep on.

WELNA: Now you have, sir, two images out there in the wider public. There's Robert C. Byrd, who's both the scholar and defender of the U.S. Constitution, and the Robert C. Byrd who some called the king of pork barrel spending. Which Robert C. Byrd do we have here?

Senator BYRD: Well you got both of them right here. You're looking at him. You talk about pork, I know what my duty is. My duty is to the people of West Virginia.

WELNA: And the people of West Virginia have said thank you by putting Byrd's name on airports, roads and schools across the state, built with money he snared as long time chair of the Appropriations Committee. As for the Constitution, Byrd points to a roll call tally hanging above his desk. It's from October of 2002, when he and 22 other senators voted against the Iraq War resolution.

Senator BYRD: I am proudest of that vote. Why? I stood with the Constitution. That guided me in that time because the Constitution says Congress shall have power over war.

WELNA: You're reaching for your Constitution here.

Senator BYRD: I've got the Constitution in my hand. There it is. It has my wife's name on it. Irma Byrd.

WELNA: Byrd is less proud of other votes he's cast.

Senator BYRD: I don't like my vote against the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

WELNA: You filibustered that for 14 hours on the Senate floor.

Senator BYRD: I did, I did and I'm sorry for that vote. I made a mistake. If I had it to do over again I'd vote differently.

WELNA: You also belonged to the Ku Klux Klan in the 1940's. How do you feel about that today?

Senator BYRD: Terrible. How many times am I going to have to say it? I've said it hundreds of times. I don't mind saying it again. It was a mistake.

WELNA: I'm wondering about your future, also, not just your past. At what point do you feel like you'll have served enough in this Senate or do you plan to seek office indefinitely in this body?

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

WELNA: In the meantime, as long as the people of West Virginia are willing, Byrd plans to spend the rest of his days in the U.S. Senate.

David Welna, NPR News, the capitol.

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