WASHINGTON – The death of West Virginia Sen. Robert Carlyle Byrd, the Senate’s elder statesman, is the latest in a recent series of vivid reminders that the Senate — and the ways it shapes major policies — is changing fast.
Byrd, 92, who died peacefully at Inova Fairfax Hospital in Virginia around 3 a.m. Monday, was one of a handful of senators who made the institution run from the 1970s until the middle of this decade.
Their numbers have diminished strikingly in the last year or so. Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., who served for 47 years, died 10 months ago. Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joe Biden, D-Del., became the vice president. Banking Committee Chairman Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., is retiring next January.
Byrd, who was the Senate’s Democratic leader from 1977 to 1989 and the longest-serving member of Congress in history, helped lead fights to overhaul the nation's tax code, put Social Security on a more solvent path, helped create budget surpluses in the late 1990s and agonized over whether to go to war in Iraq.
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His passing also represents the further fading of lawmakers — a class that includes the late Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., and the late Democratic Gov. George Wallace of Alabama — who were staunch segregationists but changed their views later in their careers.
"You've had a slow diminution of old Southern senators, the die-hard segregationists who fought the Lyndon Johnson civil rights legislation only to have a conversion," said Ronald Walters, a retired University of Maryland political science professor. "The old gang of Southern Democrats; he (Byrd) is the last of them."
Byrd, Kennedy, Thurmond, Biden and Dodd represent the breed of legislators from a pre-YouTube, 24-hour news cycle, cable network era who reached across the aisle to get things done.
"People who came up in that era worked very differently. They relied very much on personal relationships," said Andrew Taylor, a congressional scholar at North Carolina State University. "You don't have those kinds of bridge-builders now like you did then."
The contrast is obvious. President Barack Obama's overhaul of the nation's health care system survived after enduring a lengthy series of parliamentary challenges, including an extraordinary Christmas Eve vote.
Obama's financial regulatory overhaul, due for Senate action this week, took a very different path, however, at least partly because of Dodd. First elected to the Senate in 1980, the son of a U.S. senator, Dodd long has been known for lengthy, tiring negotiations to produce a compromise.
He did it again last week, keeping negotiators in the room until 5:40 a.m. Friday until he got a deal. While Byrd's passing complicates the process somewhat — 60 votes are needed to cut off debate, and Democrats now control 58 seats — Dodd is seen as having given moderate Republicans enough in the bill to overcome that hurdle.
Those personal relationships have extended beyond the Senate. Veterans such as Byrd came of age at a time when visiting union halls and veterans groups and having intimate knowledge of the folks back home was as important as a YouTube video or a television commercial is today.
That's why Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., the longest-service member of the U.S. House of Representatives, noted that Byrd was "a tenacious defender and advocate for the working class," and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., recalled Byrd as "a self-educated man who learned much throughout his life."
What won't change, at least not immediately, is the public face of Senate leadership, or the historic yen of lawmakers to put aside ideology and deliver pet projects to their home states. After all, said Ross Baker, a professor of political science at Rutgers University, Byrd was a "one-man stimulus program for the state of West Virginia."
The Senate is an institution that moves slowly, where votes are still recorded verbally rather than electronically, and members usually state their preferences by moving their thumbs up or down. The chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee, which has strong influence over spending, is Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, whose 47 1/2 years in the Senate on June 11 were second only to Byrd for length of service. Inouye now becomes the Senate president pro tem, third in line for the presidency.
While a spate of moderates have won election recently — a class that includes Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., and Virginia Democratic Sens. Mark Warner and Jim Webb — few are well-positioned to move into the leadership ranks.
Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., faces a tough re-election in November, and should he lose, his successor is likely to be his current deputy, Illinois' Richard Durbin, or perhaps New York's Charles Schumer.
Durbin, an affable Midwesterner who's known more for mastery of the process than for charisma, is the favorite. "He's known as a behind-the-scenes player," Taylor said.
There's little expectation that the Senate leadership suddenly will tilt toward the middle. Byrd had been in failing health for years and wasn't considered a major force in shaping recent legislation. Further, most recent Democratic leaders haven't come from the party’s liberal wing.
"Whatever happens, it won't be reshaped until after November," said Stephen Hess, a fellow emeritus at Washington’s Brookings Institution. "When the dust clears from the elections, we'll see."
Still, there have been shakeups before. Junior member George Mitchell of Maine replaced Byrd in 1989 as Democratic leader after colleagues decided they wanted a fresher, more telegenic spokesman.
Should the November elections produce an upheaval, a shakeup could happen again, analysts said, especially with the old guard's numbers dwindling.
Also, said Baker of Rutgers, "There’s a real fear among a lot of people in Congress that the electorate is volatile and moving toward the middle." It's unclear what that will mean when senators elect their leaders.
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