Byrd’s Rule Faces Scrutiny

Posted April 8, 2008 at 6:54pm

A growing number of Senate Democrats began to acknowledge Tuesday that the aging Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) is no longer fit to chair the Appropriations panel, but there is no consensus within the caucus over whether, when or how to remove him from the powerful perch.

While Byrd’s future has been a subject of Senate rumors for months, the issue appeared to ripen Tuesday when a group of about 15 senior Democrats privately discussed whether Byrd is capable of shepherding an upcoming supplemental spending bill for Iraq. Byrd, 90, has been in and out of the hospital in recent weeks, and his health has been an ongoing question within the Democratic ranks.

One high-level Democrat familiar with the leadership talks characterized the discussions this way: “Some Senators feel the pressure is too much and that we need to have stronger leadership exerted from the Senate Appropriations Committee.”

The Democrat also said that Senate leaders “are struggling to try to figure out how to deal with the situation.”

A Democratic Senator, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Byrd’s ability to continue chairing the Appropriations panel remains “a real serious question” within the caucus, adding that it is a “key committee” requiring a forceful party player.

“We have to have a chairman to drive our overall issues,” the Democrat said, adding that while there is “a great deal of deference” toward Byrd, there comes a point at which it is hurtful to the goals of the Democratic Conference.

“I think we’re at that stage,” the Democrat said.

Still, no Democratic Senator seems prepared to offer up a workable solution for how to remove Byrd from atop the committee. And none of the Democratic Senators who participated in Tuesday’s leadership meeting would publicly discuss their conversations.

“I’m not talking about it,” said Majority Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.).

“I’m not going to talk about anything that happens in leadership meetings, so I’m not going to comment,” echoed Sen. Patty Murray (Wash.), an appropriator and the Democratic Conference secretary.

Murray has unofficially helped Byrd chair the spending panel for months, including last year during several key appropriations debates. Some have even speculated that if Byrd were sidelined, Murray could continue filling in for him going forward, while others have suggested Byrd be replaced entirely with the next senior Democrat in line on the panel.

Several Democrats said any of those options have their perils, especially because Byrd is the Senate’s most senior lawmaker and is widely revered within the caucus. That’s one reason why Democratic leaders, particularly Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.), have so far been unwilling to displace him.

“It’s likely nothing will happen,” one Democratic source said. “It’s hard to do, even though it should happen.”

Another Democratic Senator said that if anything were to be done, it would be done reluctantly and only because Byrd was no longer capable of carrying out his duties. This Democrat said, “there’s not a palace coup” in the works, and that while questions about Byrd’s health persist, there’s a fervent hope it would not come to his removal as chairman.

Yet if Byrd were to be replaced, it would not be unprecedented. In 1998, Senate Republicans forced the then-96-year-old Senate Armed Services Chairman Strom Thurmond (S.C.) to step down after concerns about his abilities were raised. Thurmond was replaced by Sen. John Warner (R-Va.).

Warner was able to displace Thurmond largely because Senate GOP rules require committee Members to vote on their chairmen. Those familiar with the Thurmond situation said Warner had been making noise about challenging the South Carolinian for the job, a move that prompted then Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) — hoping to avoid a public ousting — to convince Thurmond to step down.

Senate Democratic rules are slightly different in that the caucus’ Steering Committee meets and votes on committee chairmanships, traditionally based on seniority and the recommendation of the leader. The full Democratic Conference later approves those assignments, which also are ratified in a floor resolution.

In Byrd’s case, if he were to be removed as the official chairman, Sen. Daniel Inouye (Hawaii) is next in line on the Appropriations Committee. Some have suggested that Inouye, who is now chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, may not have the appetite for the high-level fights that come with the Appropriations gavel — a decision that would make way for a very interested Sen. Patrick Leahy (Vt.) to take over.

Asked Tuesday about the Senate Democratic leadership’s discussion of Byrd’s tenure, Inouye indicated that he did not know about the talks and said he thinks Byrd is “doing all right.”

Indeed, few Democrats want to publicly question Byrd’s status, especially when he’s continuing to make votes and show up for Senate business. Byrd voted in favor of a motion Tuesday to end of debate on a bipartisan housing bill making its way through the Senate

That participation has been regularly pointed out by Byrd’s allies, and on Tuesday, his office shut down the latest round of talks about whether the West Virginia Democrat’s leadership of the Appropriations panel was nearing an end.

“We are not going to respond again to the rumor mongering,” Byrd spokesman Jesse Jacobs said.

Recently confined to a wheelchair, Byrd’s well-being became a major concern in late February after he suffered a fall at his home. That injury and related infections forced Byrd to spend several weeks in and out of the hospital, and prompted a spate of questions about his long-term health.

But as has often been the case with Byrd, the Senator returned to work March 13 to cast a series of narrow votes on the then-pending budget bill, a move that shocked even his closest friends and Senate leaders, who weren’t sure when, if ever, he would return.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, Byrd’s home-state Democratic colleague, said he believes his ally should keep his chairmanship “as long as possible,” although he declined to say when he thought that time would come.

Similarly, Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), another Appropriations member, said of Byrd: “He’s the chairman. He’s done it a lot longer than I’ve been here, and he’ll keep doing it, I suspect.”