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Byrd's Legacy: 18,000 Votes Later, He Loved His Job


The longest-serving U.S. senator in history has died. Robert Byrd of West Virginia held his seat for more than 50 years. Three years ago, as he cast his 18,000th vote, Byrd said he loved the Senate dearly.


Senator ROBERT BYRD (Democrat, West Virginia): I love the Senate for its rules; I love the Senate for its precedents; I love the Senate for the difference that it can make in people's lives.

KELLY: Joining us now is Ross Baker, a professor of political science at Rutgers University. Welcome.

Professor ROSS BAKER (Political Science, Rutgers University): Thanks, Mary Louise.

KELLY: Now, Professor Baker, Senator Byrd was well-known for carrying a copy of the U.S. Constitution in the pocket of his suits - his three-piece suits, I should add. This was a man who loved the law, loved the Constitution.

Prof. BAKER: Yes, he certainly was. And he sometimes used that little copy of the Constitution as a kind of magic wand, in which he would wave in the direction of colleagues he disagreed with. It was very interesting to see him use that as his, in a sense, his attack weapon against his adversaries. But he was very much a devotee of the U.S. Constitution and very knowledgeable about it.

KELLY: Now, speaking of people who opposed him and lived to regret it, I remember a great line from Jim Wright, the former House speaker, who once said about Byrd that - and I'll quote - "legislative graveyards are filled with the bones of those who underestimated him." This was a man who had mastered Senate rules.

Prof. BAKER: Well, that's right, he certainly did, and he was not necessarily any friend of presidents. He very sharply disapproved of President Clinton's personal life, in fact bypassed President Clinton's State of the Union address because of what he considered to be the unseemly conduct of President Clinton. And President Bush I think was someone he really felt that he needed to stand up to, and did on a number of occasions, including his opposition to the Iraq War and to President Bush's tax cuts, which actually he was quite prophetic about, in terms of their effect on the U.S. economy.

KELLY: One other thing Senator Byrd will be remembered for was his great skill at directing hundreds of millions of federal dollars back to his home state. What kind of precedent do you think that set in the Senate?

Prof. BAKER: Well, you know, one thing you never did with Senator Byrd was use the word "earmarks." He considered them congressionally directed expenditures and entirely appropriate, and very much in the constitutional tradition of an active and vital Congress. And he was someone who believed he could use the power of the federal government to lift up one of the poorest states in the nation, so you had the IRS and the ATF, a number of other agencies going over to West Virginia. He built miles and miles of highways in West Virginia with appropriations. And of course, you know, earmarks have fallen into disfavor, but he was always prepared to defend them with relentless vigor.

KELLY: Senator Byrd's death will, of course, leave the Senate with one fewer Democrat for now, but the expectation would be that the governor of West Virginia will quickly appoint another Democrat - is that right?

Prof. BAKER: I think he will, and of course if President Obama wants to sign the financial regulations reform bill this week, and so Governor Manchin can act very quickly. West Virginia has a rather small House delegation; there are only three House members from West Virginia - one of whom was defeated in the primary, Congressman Nick Rahall, who is a veteran Democrat from West Virginia, might be a possibility.

KELLY: All right, so we'll watch - watch for movement there. Thanks very much. That was Ross Baker, professor of political science at Rutgers University, speaking to us about the death this morning of Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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