Byrd is President pro tempore of the United States Senate of the 110th United States Congress, a position that puts him third in line of presidential succession, behind Vice President Dick Cheney and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. He also held this post previously from 1989–1995, briefly in January 2001, and from June 2001 – January 2003. In this role, Sen. Byrd signs every Bill passed by Congress before it is sent to the president to be signed into law or vetoed.
Byrd was valedictorian of Mark Twain High School and, in 1937, he married his high-school sweetheart, Erma Ora James. He eventually attended Beckley College (now Mountain State University), Concord College (now Concord University), Morris Harvey College (now the University of Charleston), and Marshall College (now Marshall University), all in West Virginia. He worked as a gas-station attendant, grocery-store clerk, shipyard welder during World War II, and butcher, before he won a seat in the West Virginia House of Delegates in 1946, representing Raleigh County in 1947–1950. In 1950, he was elected to the West Virginia Senate, where he served in 1951–1952. After taking a decade of night classes while in Congress, he graduated from American University's Washington College of Law in 1963.
Then–State Delegate Robert Byrd was among the official witnesses of the execution of Harry Burdette and Fred Painter in 1951, which was the first use of the electric chair in West Virginia. Capital punishment in that state was abolished in 1965, the last execution having occurred in 1959. In a 2007 speech, Byrd recalled this event by stating that electrocution "is not a beautiful thing".
According to Byrd, a Klan official told him, "You have a talent for leadership, Bob... The country needs young men like you in the leadership of the nation." Byrd later recalled, "suddenly lights flashed in my mind! Someone important had recognized my abilities! I was only 23 or 24 years old, and the thought of a political career had never really hit me. But strike me that night, it did." Byrd held the titles Kleagle (recruiter) and Exalted Cyclops.
When running for the United States House of Representatives in 1952, he announced "After about a year, I became disinterested, quit paying my dues, and dropped my membership in the organization. During the nine years that have followed, I have never been interested in the Klan." He said the Klan offered excitement and was anti-communist, therefore he belonged to the Klan in the 1942-1943 period. However, in 1946 or 1947 he wrote a letter to a Grand Wizard stating, "The Klan is needed today as never before and I am anxious to see its rebirth here in West Virginia and in every state in the nation.
In 1997, he told an interviewer he would encourage young people to become involved in politics, but to "Be sure you avoid the Ku Klux Klan. Don't get that albatross around your neck. Once you've made that mistake, you inhibit your operations in the political arena. In his latest autobiography, Byrd explained that he was a member because he "was sorely afflicted with tunnel vision—a jejune and immature outlook—seeing only what I wanted to see because I thought the Klan could provide an outlet for my talents and ambitions. Byrd also said, in 2005,
I know now I was wrong. Intolerance had no place in America. I apologized a thousand times... and I don't mind apologizing over and over again. I can't erase what happened.
While Byrd faced some vigorous Republican opposition in the past, he has not faced truly serious opposition since freshman congressman Cleve Benedict took a run at him in 1982. He has since won by comfortable margins. Despite his tremendous popularity in the state, he has only run unopposed once, in 1976. On two other occasions—in 1994 and 2000—he won all 55 of West Virginia's counties. In his reelection bid in 2000, he won all but seven of West Virginia's precincts. Shelley Moore Capito, a Congresswoman and the daughter of Byrd's longtime foe—former governor Arch Moore, Jr.—briefly considered a challenge to Byrd in 2006, but decided against it.
In the 1960 Democratic Presidential election primaries, Byrd, a close Senate ally of Lyndon B. Johnson, endorsed and campaigned for Hubert Humphrey over frontrunner John F. Kennedy in the crucial West Virginia primary. However, Kennedy won the state's primary and, eventually, the general election.
Byrd was elected to an unprecedented ninth consecutive term in the Senate on November 7, 2006. He became the longest-serving senator in American history on June 12, 2006, surpassing Strom Thurmond of South Carolina with 17,327 days of service. Previously, he already held the record for the longest unbroken tenure in the Senate (Thurmond served 48 years in total, but vacated the office between April and November 1956). Considering his tenure as state legislator from 1947 to 1953, Byrd's service exceeds 60 years, and he has never lost an election. Byrd has cast a total of 18,000 votes as of June 21, 2007, the most of any senator in history. Upon the death of Senator George Smathers of Florida on January 20, 2007, Byrd became the last living United States Senator from the 1950s. He would pass Carl Hayden of Arizona as the longest-serving member of Congress (House and Senate tenure combined) in American history if he remains in service until November 19, 2009 (when he will complete 20,774 days in the Congress to Hayden's 20,773). Byrd is the last remaining Senator to have voted on a statehood bill and has served longer in the Senate than eight of his colleagues have been alive (those being Bob Casey, Jr., Amy Klobuchar, Blanche Lincoln, John Thune, David Vitter, Barack Obama, Mark Pryor, and John E. Sununu).
Byrd joined with other Southern and border state Democrats to filibuster the Civil Rights Act of 1964, personally filibustering the bill for 14 hours — a move he now says he regrets. Despite an 83 day filibuster in the Senate, both parties in Congress voted overwhelmingly in favor of the Act, and President Johnson signed the bill into law. He also opposed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, but voted for the Civil Rights Act of 1968. In 2005, Byrd told the Washington Post that his membership in the Baptist church led to a change in his views. In the opinion of one reviewer, Byrd, along with other Southern and border state Democrats, came to realize that he would have to temper "his blatantly segregationist views" and move to the Democratic Party mainstream if he wanted to play a role nationally.
Because of his opposition to desegregation, Byrd was often regarded as a Dixiecrat - a member of this Democratic Party wing that opposed desegregation and civil rights imposed by the Federal Government. However, despite his early career in the KKK, Byrd was linked to such "dixiecrat" Senators as John C. Stennis, J. William Fulbright or George Smathers, who based their segregationist positions on their conception of states' rights in contrast to, for example, James Eastland, who held a reputation as a committed racist.
Byrd has been a member of the Senate Democratic leadership since 1967, when he was elected as secretary of the Senate Democratic Conference (caucus). He became Senate Majority Whip, or the second-ranking Democrat, in 1971. From 1977 to 1989 Byrd was the leader of the Senate Democrats, serving as Senate Majority Leader from 1977 to 1981 and 1987 to 1989 and as Senate Minority Leader from 1981 to 1987.
In 1976, Byrd was the "favorite son" candidate in West Virginia's primary. His easy victory gave him control of the delegation to the national convention. Byrd had the inside track as majority whip, but focused most of his time on campaigning for the office of majority leader, more so than for re-election to the Senate, as he was virtually unopposed for his fourth term. By the time the vote for majority leader was at hand, he had it so wrapped up that his lone rival, Minnesota's Hubert Humphrey, withdrew before the balloting took place.
Byrd is well known for steering federal dollars to West Virginia, one of the country's poorest states. He is called by some the "King of Pork. After becoming chair of the Appropriations Committee in 1989, Byrd sought to steer, over time, a total of $1 billion for public works in the state. He passed that mark in 1991, and the steady stream of funds for highways, dams, educational institutions, and federal agency offices has continued unabated over the course of his membership. More than thirty pending or existing federal projects bear Byrd's name. He commented on his reputation for attaining funds for projects in West Virginia in August 2006 when he called himself "Big Daddy" at the dedication to the Robert C. Byrd Biotechnology Science Center.
Byrd is also known for using his knowledge of parliamentary procedure: Before the "Reagan Revolution", Byrd frustrated Republicans with his encyclopedic knowledge of the inner workings of the Senate. From 1977 to 1979 he was described as "performing a procedural tap dance around the minority, outmaneuvering Republicans with his mastery of the Senate's arcane rules. In 1988, while Majority Leader, he moved a call of the Senate, which was adopted by the majority present, in order to have the Sergeant at Arms arrest members not in attendance. One member (Robert Packwood, R-Oregon) was escorted back to the chamber by the Sergeant-at-Arms in order to obtain a quorum.
As the longest-serving Democratic Senator, Byrd has served as President pro tempore four times when his party has been in the majority: from 1989 until the Republicans won control of the Senate in 1995; for 17 days in early 2001, when the Senate was evenly split between parties and outgoing Vice President Al Gore broke the tie in favor of the Democrats; when the Democrats regained the majority in June 2001 after Senator Jim Jeffords of Vermont left the Republican party to become an independent; and again in 2007, as a result of the 2006 Senate elections. In this capacity, Byrd is third in the line of presidential succession, currently behind Vice President Dick Cheney and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.
In 2002 Byrd secured unanimous approval for a major national initiative to strengthen the teaching of "traditional American history" in the K12 public schools. The Department of Education awards in competition $50 to $120 million a year to school districts (in sums of about $500,000 to $1 million). The money goes to teacher training programs, operated in conjunction with universities or museums, geared to improving the content skills of history teachers. Referred to as a "TAH Grant," these awards come under the “Learning the Lessons of American History” initiative to strengthen and improve the teaching of American history in the schools.
Television cameras were first introduced to the House of Representatives on March 19, 1979 with the launch of C-SPAN. Fearing that Americans only saw the Congress as the House of Representatives, Byrd believed that Senate proceedings should be televised to prevent the Senate from becoming the "invisible branch" of government. Thanks in part to Byrd's efforts, cameras came to the Senate floor in June 1986. To help introduce the public to the inner workings of the legislative process, Byrd launched a series of speeches based on his examination of the Roman Republic and the intent of the Framers. Byrd published a four-volume series on Senate history: The Senate: 1789–1989.
For that work, the American Historical Association, presented Byrd with the first Theodore Roosevelt-Woodrow Wilson Award for Civil Service on January 8, 2004. The honorific award is intended to recognize individuals outside the academy "who have made a significant contribution to history." During the 1980s, he delivered a hundred speeches on the floor dealing with various aspects of the Senate's history, which were published in four volumes as The Senate, 1789–1989: Addresses on the History of the Senate (Government Printing Office, 1989–94). The first volume of his series won the Henry Adams Prize of the Society for History in the Federal Government as "an outstanding contribution to research in the history of the Federal Government." He also published The Senate of the Roman Republic: Addresses on the History of Roman Constitutionalism (Government Printing Office, 1995).
On occasion, Byrd disagreed with President Bill Clinton's policies. Byrd initially said that the impeachment proceedings against Clinton should be taken seriously and conducted completely. Although he harshly criticized any attempt to make light of it, he made the motion to dismiss the charges against the president and effectively suspend proceedings. Even though he voted against both articles of impeachment, he was the sole Democrat to vote for the censure of Clinton. He strongly opposed Clinton's 1993 efforts to allow gays to serve in the military and has also supported efforts to limit gay marriage. However, he opposed the Federal Marriage Amendment, arguing that it was unnecessary because the states already had the power to ban gay marriages. However, when the amendment came to the Senate floor he was one of the two Democratic Senators who voted in favor of the cloture motion. He also opposes affirmative action.
He also voiced praise for George W. Bush's nomination of Judge John Roberts to fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court created by the death of Chief Justice William Rehnquist. Likewise, Byrd supported the confirmation of Samuel Alito to replace retiring Associate Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. Like most Democrats, however, Byrd opposes Bush's tax cuts and his proposals to change the Social Security program. He is pro-choice and voted against the first ban on partial birth abortions in 1995, but voted for the bill on subsequent occasions. Byrd voted against Laci and Conner's Law, which strongly divided the supporters and opponents of legal abortion.
Byrd is opposed to the Flag Desecration Amendment, saying that, while he wants to protect the American flag, he believed that amending the constitution "is not the most expeditious way to protect this revered symbol of our Republic." In response to the amendment, Byrd has cosponsored S. 1370, a bill that prohibits destruction or desecration of the flag by anyone trying to incite violence or causing a breach of the peace. It also provides that anyone who steals, damages, or destroys a flag on federal property, whether a flag owned by the federal government or a private group or individual, can be imprisoned for up to two years, or can be fined up to $250,000, or both.
In 2004, Byrd offered an amendment that would limit the personnel in Plan Colombia, but was defeated in the Senate.
Byrd received a 65% vote rating from the League of Conservation Voters for his support of environmentally friendly legislation. Additionally, he received a "liberal" rating of 65.5% by the National Journal — higher than six other Democratic senators.
In 2006, Byrd received 67% rating from the ACLU for supporting rights-related legislation.
In a March 4, 2001 interview with Tony Snow, Byrd said of race relations:
Byrd's use of the term white nigger created immediate controversy. When asked about it, Byrd responded,
Byrd has since explicitly renounced his earlier views on racial segregation. Byrd said that he regrets filibustering and voting against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and would change it if he had the opportunity. He has stated that joining the KKK was "the greatest mistake I ever made". Byrd has also said that his views changed dramatically after his teenage grandson was killed in a 1982 traffic accident, which put him in a deep emotional valley. "The death of my grandson caused me to stop and think," said Byrd, adding he came to realize that black people love their children as much as he does his.
Byrd is the only Senator to have voted against the nominations of both Thurgood Marshall and Clarence Thomas to the United States Supreme Court, the only two African Americans to have been nominated to the court. Marshall's confirmation vote came in 1967 when Byrd and other segregationist senators were opposed to the idea of a black integrationist being placed on the court. In order to gain evidence against Marshall's appointment, Byrd asked FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to look into what Byrd believed to be the possibility that Marshall had either connections to communists or a potential communist past. Byrd opposed Thomas because Byrd stated that he was "offended" by Thomas using the phrase "high-tech lynching of uppity blacks" in his defense. Byrd stated that he was "offended by the injection of racism" into the hearing. He called Justice Thomas' comments a mere "diversionary tactic". Byrd commented upon the "racism" issue that Thomas raised by stating that "I (Byrd) thought we were past that stage." Byrd dismissed Thomas' racism charges by stating that Thomas exhibited "arrogance" and Thomas' comments were "nonsense, nonsense." Regarding Anita Hill's sexual harassment charges against Thomas, Byrd believed Hill. Byrd joined 45 other Democrats in their opposition to Thomas. Byrd also opposed some of George W. Bush's judicial and cabinet nominees who were black, notably Federal Judge Janice Rogers Brown and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Despite his opposition to Brown's appointment, Byrd would later ally himself with the Gang of 14 that would ensure that Brown's nomination would not be filibustered.
In the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's (NAACP) Congressional Report Card for the 108th Congress (spanning the 2003–2004 congressional session), Byrd was awarded with an approval rating of 100% for favoring the NAACP's position in all 33 bills presented to the United States Senate regarding issues of their concern. Only 16 other Senators of the same session matched this approval rating. In June 2005, Byrd proposed an additional $10 million in federal funding for the Martin Luther King memorial in Washington, D.C., remarking that "With the passage of time, we have come to learn that his Dream was the American Dream, and few ever expressed it more eloquently."
In the 107th Congress, Byrd suffered some legislative setbacks, particularly with respect to debates on homeland security. Byrd opposed the 2002 law creating the Homeland Security Department, saying it ceded too much authority to the executive branch. He led a filibuster against the resolution granting President George W. Bush broad power to wage a "preemptive" war against Iraq, but he could not get a majority of his own party to vote against cloture and against the resolution. He also led the opposition to Bush's bid to win back the power to negotiate trade deals that Congress cannot amend, but lost overwhelmingly. But, in the 108th Congress, Byrd won his party's top seat on the new Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee.
Byrd was one of the Senate's most outspoken critics of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. He appeared on March 7, 2003 on CNN's Larry King Live to discuss his U.S. Senate floor speeches against the Iraq War Resolution in 2002.
In a speech on March 13 he stated:
On March 19, 2003, when Bush ordered the invasion after receiving U.S. Congress approval, Byrd stated:
Byrd also criticized Bush for his speech declaring the "end of major combat operations" in Iraq, which Bush made on the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln. Byrd stated on the Senate floor:
On October 17, 2003, Byrd delivered a speech expressing his concerns about the future of the nation and his unequivocal antipathy to Bush's policies. Referencing the Hans Christian Andersen children's tale The Emperor's New Clothes, Byrd said of the president: "the emperor has no clothes." Byrd further lamented the "sheep-like" behavior of the "cowed Members of this Senate" and called on them to oppose the continuation of a "war based on falsehoods."
Byrd criticized what he saw as the stifling of dissent: "The right to ask questions, debate, and dissent is under attack. The drums of war are beaten ever louder in an attempt to drown out those who speak of our predicament in stark terms. Even in the Senate, our history and tradition of being the world's greatest deliberative body is being snubbed. This huge spending bill — $87 billion — has been rushed through this chamber in just one month. There were just three open hearings by the Senate Appropriations Committee on $87 billion — $87 for every minute since Jesus Christ was born — $87 billion without a single outside witness called to challenge the administration's line." Finally, Byrd quoted Nazi leader Hermann Göring who stated that rushing to war is easy if the proponent of war portrays opponents as unpatriotic.
In July 2004, Byrd released the book Losing America: Confronting a Reckless and Arrogant Presidency about the Bush presidency and the war in Iraq.
Of the more than 17,000 votes he has cast as a Senator, Byrd says he is proudest of his vote against the Iraq war resolution. Byrd has also voted for funding the Iraq war with a timetable for troop withdrawal.
Raese won the May 2006 primary with 58 percent of the vote, defeating five other candidates. Byrd defeated him on November 7, 2006, securing a ninth consecutive term in the Senate.
In a ranking of the members of the Senate according to the power they are thought to wield, Byrd was deemed the fourteenth-most powerful U.S. Senator for 2007, as well as the twelfth most powerful Democratic Senator.
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