Byrd Fends Off Talk of Toppling

Posted April 16, 2008 at 6:37pm

Sen. Robert Byrd’s (D-W.Va.) performance in presiding over a key Appropriations Committee hearing Wednesday appeared to be good enough to meet his colleagues’ expectations, ensuring his survival as chairman, at least for the near term.

Senate Democrats viewed the session as a critical test for the ailing Senator in his quest to hold onto the powerful gavel. By nearly every account, Democrats said Byrd measured up.

Asked after the hearing whether he believed he put to rest questions about his fitness for the job, the 90-year-old Byrd amiably replied, “Yeah, man.” When pressed to comment on whether he thinks Senate Democratic leaders will have any more discussions, as they did last Tuesday, about his ability to continue chairing the committee, Byrd told a reporter to “shut up.”

Even as Democrats appeared to sheath their swords, some warned that Byrd would need to function consistently well over the next few months to permanently ease party concerns.

“His performance today puts to rest many of the appearance questions, and the only questions that remain are the quite legitimate ones of whether a 90-year-old Senator who’s had a series of recent hospital stays can handle the long-term strain of this job over the next couple of months,” said one Senate Democratic source.

Democrats had been aiming to subtly persuade Byrd to cede the gavel on his own, though none of them — including party leaders — directly asked Byrd to step down. The veteran lawmaker has dismissed the whispering campaign and made calls to colleagues to shore up support.

“A number of members of the caucus still have concerns,” said one well-placed Democrat, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “He may have bought himself some time, but it’s still going to be a long year.”

Wednesday’s hearing was a critical test for Byrd, who had to prove he still could manage a hearing on a crucial Democratic issue — supplemental spending for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Several sources said Wednesday that Democrats would see how Byrd handles the remaining duties associated with the supplemental measure, noting that it requires heavy lifting to manage the $108 billion bill on the floor and get it to the president’s desk.

Byrd could continue as Appropriations chairman for the next eight months of the Congress while turning to other appropriators to help him fulfill some of his upcoming responsibilities — something he has done in recent years. Last year in particular, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) took over the floor during the Senate’s consideration of the 2007 Iraq War funding measure.

As the well-placed Democratic source said: “Byrd may have done well enough to hold on for the rest of the year.”

By all accounts, Byrd passed the test of whether he could still handle the task of presiding over a two-hour-long hearing. Before the session, Byrd joked with photographers — posing with his gavel and saying, “Here’s your chance.” And once the meeting began, he seamlessly called on Senators in turn and bantered briefly with Jim Nussle, director of the Office of Management and Budget.

Byrd even cheered on his fellow Democrats, saying, “Yeah, man!” and “Right!” as Sens. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) and Murray ripped into Nussle for what they perceived to be deficiencies in the administration’s planning for the war and domestic priorities. Byrd’s praise was echoed by similar statements from anti-war protesters in the otherwise sparsely populated hearing room.

Still, Byrd’s questioning of Nussle was not nearly as robust as the other Senators’. He asked only one scripted question about the nation’s “crumbling infrastructure,” while other Senators overshot their seven-minute time limits and pummeled Nussle with questions about the administration’s budget.

Even so, Senate appropriators in both parties praised Byrd’s handling of the hearing.

Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) said based on Wednesday’s performance, Byrd defied detractors, saying he was “strong and in control.” Asked whether Byrd fared well enough to put an end to talk of his ouster, Nelson said: “I think it puts it aside, at least for now. It would be hard for anybody today to say that he didn’t perform as chairman. He clearly did.”

Similarly, Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) said Byrd did a “fine job,” adding, “He knows what he’s doing. He’s on top of what he’s doing.”

After saying that Byrd did “just great,” Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who also sits on the panel, admonished reporters for continuing to ask about whether Byrd proved himself fit to be chairman.

“This poor man is working himself as hard as he can, and all you can do is boil the pot,” he said.

The drama surrounding Byrd also put the spotlight on those Democrats who might seek to become the next chairman.

Sen. Daniel Inouye (Hawaii), No. 2 in seniority, was present for the entire hearing, and the 83-year-old gave an unusually spirited and pointed performance when questioning Nussle.

The No. 3 Democrat, Sen. Patrick Leahy (Vt.), who has been privately agitating for the gavel, took pains to thank Byrd for presiding over the session. After delivering his own blistering critique of Nussle and the Bush administration, Leahy turned to Byrd, saying, “Mr. Chairman, my time is up. I thank you again for being here, and I thank you for holding this hearing.”

Nussle even referenced the situation, noting, “If I could write the contract to look as good as you do today, I would.”

Responded Byrd, “You get an A-plus for that.”

Tim Taylor contributed to this report.