Robert C. Byrd, Senate's Longest Serving Member, Dead at 92

The reformed KKK member cast more than 18,600 votes in storied Senate career.

ByABC News
January 20, 2009, 4:38 PM

June 28, 2010— -- West Virginia Sen. Robert C. Byrd, the longest-serving member of the U.S. Senate, died early this morning. He was 92.

Byrd was admitted to a Washington area hospital a week ago, suffering from what was believed to be heat exhaustion and severe dehydration as a result of the extreme temperatures in the nation's capital. By Sunday afternoon, other conditions developed, and Byrd's health took a turn for the worse.

Byrd died at 3 a.m. Monday morning at Inova Fairfax hospital in Falls Church, Virginia.

Born Nov. 20, 1917, in North Wilkesboro, North Carolina, Byrd was orphaned at the age of 1 when his mother died. He was raised by his aunt and uncle in a rural community near the coalfields of West Virginia.

The life lessons he learned while growing up in a coal-mining family helped him shape his political career; he ultimately achieved the distinction of being a three-term representative and a nine-term senator.

"The people of West Virginia have lost a true champion, the United States Senate has lost a venerable institution and America has lost a voice of principle and reason with the passing of Robert C. Byrd," President Obama said in a statement today. "He was as much a part of the Senate as the marble busts that line its chamber and its corridors."

Vice President Joe Biden remembered Byrd as a "tough, compassionate, and outspoken leader."

"We shall not see his like again," Biden said today at an event in Louisville, Kentucky. "And the Senate is a lesser place for his going."

Famed for his informed, often lengthy speeches on the floor of the Senate, Byrd's admirers praised his mastery of governmental procedure, historical knowledge and candor -- often calling him the "conscience of the Senate."

Byrd will be remembered "as that guardian of the Senate, as an institution. He insisted on the dignity of the Senate and tried to make people put aside their partisanship and really look at the Senate as a deliberative body," ABC News contributor Cokie Roberts said on "Good Morning America."

Byrd always carried a copy of the Constitution and often pulled it out in one of his fiery speeches on the Senate floor. But what set him apart from other senators was that "he could put it back in his pocket and recite it verbatim, the whole Constitution," recalled Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont.

In his 51 years in the Senate, the Democratic senator cast more than 18,600 votes -- more than any other senator to date.

Delivering a tribute on the Senate floor following Byrd's 18,000th vote, Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Illinois, said, "To help put the length of his service in perspective, consider a few facts: When Sen. Byrd cast his first vote in the Senate -- on Jan. 8, 1959 -- his colleagues included Sens. John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. Vice President Richard Nixon was the presiding officer. Hawaii was not yet a state. And a state-of-the-art computer would have taken up half of the space of this chamber, and had roughly the same amount of computing power as a Palm Pilot."

Byrd served as president pro tempore of the Senate -- a post that put the 92-year-old third in line for presidency after Vice President Joe Biden and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.

Tributes from Capitol Hill hailed Byrd as a fiery orator who loved the Senate.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, remembered Byrd as "one of the greatest minds the world has ever seen.

"The people of West Virginia have lost a dedicated public servant, and America has lost a great defender of its most precious traditions," Reid said in a statement. "He was the foremost guardian of the Senate's complex rules, procedures and customs, and as leader of both the majority and the minority caucuses in the Senate he knew better than most that legislation is the art of compromise."

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, praised Byrd's "fighter's spirit" and "abiding faith."

"He was a great patriot. He loved the Senate, there's no doubt about it," Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Alabama, said on "GMA." "He had a great way for words."

Byrd's replacement will be picked by West Virginia's Democratic Gov. Joe Manchin and will occupy the seat until 2012.

Under West Virginia law, if a the vacancy in the Senate occurs less than two years and six months before the end of the term -- which in this case is January 2013 -- the governor appoints someone to fill the entire term. But if a vacancy occurs before that time period, as would be the case with Byrd's death, a special election is held in November to fill the remainder of the term.

Manchin, whose second term expires in 2012, is said to be eyeing the seat himself.

In a written statement Monday morning, Manchin said all West Virginians' hearts break at the passing of Byrd and that the state has "suffered a terrible loss."

With Byrd's death, Democrats not only lost a longtime leader but also the crucial 60th vote to pass the financial reform bill that has been pending for weeks in the Senate.