Byrd Signals a Fight for His Job

Veteran Calls Colleagues

Posted April 9, 2008 at 6:47pm

Senate Democratic leaders sought Wednesday to distance themselves from growing chatter over whether Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) should remain as the Appropriations chairman, just as the ailing Senator came to his own defense in strategically placed calls to influential lawmakers.

Byrd’s calls to his colleagues began shortly before Roll Call reported Tuesday that senior Senate Democrats had privately discussed whether the 90-year-old Senator should retain his position on the spending panel as Congress takes up the $100 billion-plus supplemental war spending bill later this month. The Democrats took up the sensitive topic during a regularly scheduled leadership meeting Tuesday morning.

According to sources, Byrd called fellow Democratic Senators — particularly leaders and fellow appropriators — vowing that he will be more vigorous in his stewardship of the committee. Byrd, the longest-serving Senator, has been in and out of the hospital in recent weeks, and his health has been the subject of speculation for months. Since a fall at his house in late February, he has been in a wheelchair.

Some Democrats have quietly suggested Byrd should step aside voluntarily, as was the case a decade ago when the Republicans faced a similar situation with then-ailing Sen. Strom Thurmond (S.C.). Otherwise, Democratic leaders would have to find a politically acceptable way to displace Byrd, such as by temporarily or more permanently passing his gavel on to another senior appropriator.

One Democratic source said Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has reached out to Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) to see if he would be willing to take over the panel for the remainder of the year, at the very least. The source said the thinking goes that Byrd might think it less of a “coup d’état” if the 83-year-old Inouye — who is next in seniority on the panel and a close friend of Byrd’s — took over, rather than Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who is third in line for the chairmanship. Leahy has had his sights on chairing the spending committee for some time.

Inouye likely would not remain as chairman in the next Congress because he is widely believed to be uninterested in permanently steering the demanding and often-confrontational committee, sources said. That could put Leahy in the top spot for the 111th Congress.

Tuesday’s Democratic leadership meeting was the first high-level Member discussion about whether Byrd’s health was becoming problematic for the Conference. No decisions were made, but sources familiar with the discussions expected it would not be the last of the Senators’ conversations.

Byrd also serves as President Pro Tem, a position that puts him third in line for the presidency. Some Senate Democrats also have discussed whether such a frail and elderly Senator should hold such a high-level post, but it does not appear that Democratic leaders have discussed what, if anything, to do about that issue.

While speculation mounts over his Appropriations leadership, Byrd’s colleagues publicly reiterated their support for him, even though many privately acknowledge that he’s no longer up to the demands the job requires.

“I think we’re at that stage,” one Democratic Senator, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said this week.

Clearly those feelings are being relayed to Byrd, who, within hours of the Senators’ meeting, began calling senior Democrats within the Conference. Although Byrd’s office declined to comment, Democratic sources indicated that the calls targeted Members who could be influential to whether he stays or goes.

Democratic Conference Secretary Patty Murray (Wash.), who serves as an appropriator, would neither confirm nor deny that she had received one of those calls from Byrd. Other sources, however, said Murray was among the first to hear from him.

“He has tremendous respect from the United States Senate, and we all have tremendous respect for him, and we all want him to continue doing the job he has done for longer than I’ve been around,” Murray said.

In the past year, Murray has been tapped to guide appropriations bills through the Senate floor because Byrd’s health has prevented him from the grueling duty. Some Democrats have suggested that — in lieu of displacing Byrd altogether — Murray could continue to step in when needed.

All the conjecture aside, Byrd still has his backers, including Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), who said he counts himself among those who believe Byrd should keep his chairmanship. Tester said if Byrd reaches out to him, he “would support him to stay on.”

“Call me naive, but I think he’s going to be fine,” Tester said. “I think it’s premature. He’s going to come back and be just as effective as ever.”

Similarly, Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), an appropriator, said Byrd also has her confidence. Landrieu said she “speak[s] to him regularly” and “if he’s making calls, I am sure I will get a call.”

“He’s still handling the job,” Landrieu said, adding that many Members “have their medical challenges and have good days and bad days, but he’s doing fine.”