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17,000 and Counting

Byrd Approaches Unbreakable Mark

To put in perspective the looming milestone Sen. Robert Byrd will soon pass in casting his 17,000th Senate vote, consider this: The West Virginia Democrat established the all-time record when he cast his 12,134th vote — in April 1990.

Or, as Don Ritchie, the associate Senate historian, put it, “It means he has not been afraid to take a stand 17,000 times.”

It’s a record hard to imagine another Senator ever surpassing.

“Every time Bob casts a vote, he sets a new record,” said Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), who ranks as the second-longest-serving Senator currently in the chamber behind Byrd, but remains several thousand votes shy of the 17,000 mark. “It is not fair, though, that he counts the votes he cast in the Roman Senate too, but we love him anyway and we never stop learning from him.”

When the West Virginian cast his first vote (fittingly, a procedural vote) on Jan. 8, 1959, Kennedy’s brother and future President John F. Kennedy was still representing Massachusetts in the Senate.

“He is more than the sum of all these votes,” said Pat Griffin, who served as Democratic Secretary under Byrd from 1983 to 1985. “He has touched this institution, the policies, the people, the process and his colleagues in so many important ways and the impact of which will continue to reverberate for decades.”

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) agreed: “Senator Byrd is already recognized as a Senate icon, and this milestone further marks his ongoing commitment to public service. Without question, when history is written Senator Byrd will hold a prominent place as a Senate legend.”

But Byrd counts a vote cast in a losing cause as the one of which he is most proud: his decision to oppose a measure granting President Bush the authority to wage war against Iraq.

Reflecting on the October 2002 vote, Byrd noted that the Constitution charges Congress with the responsibility to declare war.

“On that occasion the Senate shamefully voted to shift that power to the president of the Untied States,” Byrd said. “It was a sad day in the history of the Senate.”

“I think the framers of the Constitution of the United States would have been spinning in their graves,” he added.

Despite losing that particular vote, Byrd is philosophical about voting and said a Senator will not always be remembered for how many votes he cast, but how he actually voted.

“It isn’t necessarily the quantity of votes that counts,” Byrd said in an interview. “It is the quality of vote.”

Also memorable was his vote against the line-item veto, a tool the West Virginian saw as an infringement by the executive branch on the legislative branch.

“I was so bitterly against the line-item veto because it ran against the Constitution and was so counter to the Constitution,” Byrd said.

While he initially lost that vote in 1996, two years later the Supreme Court would agree with Byrd and others that the act was in fact unconstitutional, because it violated the principle that a president must sign or veto a bill in its entirety.

“All of these things made it a very memorable vote and a very gratifying outcome,” he said.

But he admits mistakes. Among the thousands of votes, there are several Byrd said he would like to take back. Most notably was his vote against the Civil Rights Act in 1964. And there are other less obvious roll call votes that still sting — such as his vote for airline deregulation, an act that had a major impact on his home state when “some of the major airlines that were operating in West Virginia pulled out.”

“I made a mistake,” Byrd said.

He believes the transformation of the Senate from a mannered institution into its current incarnation as a primarily political arena can be traced through its most basic function: voting.

“Politics plays a larger part now than it used to,” Byrd said. Now, he contends, roll call votes are sometimes called just to put a person on the record with the next election in mind.

“Senators demand more roll call votes because of the politicization of the issues,” he said. “It used to be that many of the votes were done by voice [vote] and that is just as effective a way of voting as is voting by roll call. But politically, if it is done by roll call, there is a record of it. There is a record of each vote, and that record can be used and is used.”

A defender of the chamber’s traditions, Byrd also suggests there is a sense of disorder nowadays that was not present when he was first elected to the Senate.

“Senators are supposed to vote from their desks,” he said. “It makes for a much more orderly process and also it makes for an alphabetical process of voting.

“When Senators are allowed to line up at the front of the chamber and vote it allows them to vote ahead of other Senators whose names are reached in the alphabetical order earlier,” he added.

But he is under no illusions that the chamber will revert to a gentler body, and pointed to the transformation of politics and the habits of his colleagues.

“It probably won’t ever, because politics plays a much larger part,” Byrd said. “Members are more political.”

As for his colleagues, he said, “They look upon scoring as being the all-important part. Politics seems to be the all-important game.”

The end result, he suggests, “is not good.”

“That is not good for the people,” he said.

As for advice for his younger colleagues, Byrd echoed a theme he has been sounding for years: “Study the rules.”

But the West Virginian added this caveat: “Avoid becoming enamored with the worship of the commander in chief,” he said. “Remember there are three equal branches of government and that means they are equal. This is not a monarchy.”

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