WASHINGTON — West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd has been around so long that nearly all lawmakers in Congress can remember reasons they love him — and many can recall how they once bitterly opposed him.
The veteran Democrat on Wednesday became the longest-serving member of Congress in history, as he logged day number 20,774, surpassing the record of Arizona Democrat Carl Hayden, who served in the House of Representatives and the Senate from 1912 to 1969.
As the senior senator, Byrd, who'll turn 92 on Friday, is the Senate president pro tempore, and third in line for the presidency.
Although he's been ailing lately and missed most votes this year, he’s been back in recent weeks. He was the floor manager for this year's homeland security spending bill, and he heard tributes Wednesday from his colleagues.
His legacy, scholars say, is that of a lawmaker who changed with the times. A youthful Ku Klux Klan member, Byrd fought and eventually voted against the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act, as well as against the confirmation of Thurgood Marshall as the first black Supreme Court justice in 1967.
However, Byrd moderated and became a trusted leader of the generally liberal Senate Democratic caucus in the late 1970s and 1980s.
No senator in modern times has been a greater defender of the Senate’s authority nor a closer student of the Constitution than has Byrd, a quintessential “Senate man.” In 2002, he was one of the few vocal opponents of giving President George W. Bush broad authority to wage war in Iraq, saying that Congress was giving him “unchecked power.”
Byrd is also well-known for — and in some quarters sharply criticized for — another legacy: delivering projects to his home state. The advocacy group Citizens Against Government Waste estimated that last year alone, he added $386 million to legislation for West Virginia projects.
Wednesday, though, was a day for tributes and a nod to history. Colleagues recalled that Byrd has served under 12 presidents, that he came to the Senate in 1959 on the same day that Alaska became the 49th state, that he’s the only senator ever elected to his position nine times. He also served in the House of Representatives from 1952 to 1958.
Byrd spoke for a few minutes, at one point appearing to hold back tears. "Because of those wonderful people in West Virginia," he said, “this foster son of an impoverished coal miner from the great hills of southern West Virginia has had the opportunity to walk with kings." And, he said, "I've loved every precious minute of it." Senators stood and applauded, and Byrd, who has been wheelchair-bound, stood up to acknowledge their applause.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., compared Byrd to New York Yankees legend Lou Gehrig, who played in 2,130 consecutive baseball games.
“Throughout history, forecasters have sentenced themselves to ridicule for prematurely assuming a skyscraper’s height would never be topped, for promising an invention’s ingenuity would never be outdone or for contending an athletic feat would never be surpassed, “ Reid said.
“Even so,” he added, “I am willing to risk predicting that many of the records set by Senator Robert Byrd will never be matched:”
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