November 7, 2008 – Senator Robert C. Byrd, Democrat of West Virginia, and the senior member of the Senate, agreed on Friday to relinquish his chairmanship of the Appropriations Committee, as Democrats and President-elect Barack Obama prepare to grapple with the gravest economic crisis since the Great Depression.
Mr. Byrd, who will be 91 this month, is a revered figure in the Senate but has had a series of health problems and hospitalizations in recent months. His Democratic colleagues increasingly feared that he was no longer up to the task of running the Senate’s most powerful committee on a daily basis.
Persuading him to step aside, however, presented a delicate task, and any effort to remove him forcibly, which would have required a vote by the Democratic caucus, could well have failed.
In the end, though, Mr. Byrd spared the majority leader, Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, from having to raise the issue. Without so much as requesting a meeting, Mr. Byrd, who served as majority leader himself for a dozen years, gave Mr. Reid 15 minutes’ notice before issuing a statement on Friday afternoon relinquishing his post.
Mr. Byrd said that the time had come for new leadership, and that he would turn over the reins of the Appropriations Committee to Senator Daniel K. Inouye of Hawaii, who is next in line and who turned 84 in September. Mr. Byrd will remain a member of the committee and will continue to serve as the Senate’s president pro tempore.
“I have been privileged to be a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee for 50 years and to have chaired the committee for 10 years, during a time of enormous change in our great country, both culturally and politically,” Mr. Byrd said in his statement, in which he also praised the election of Mr. Obama.
“A new day has dawned in Washington, and that is a good thing,” he said. “For my part, I believe that it is time for a new day at the top of the Senate Appropriations Committee.”
Aides said that Mr. Byrd was well-aware of the chatter among his colleagues and that he had made the decision of his own accord. Mr. Byrd, a fierce defender of Senate history and tradition, was also said to be uninterested in the manufactured title of chairman emeritus, which some Democrats had proposed as an incentive for him to step aside.
Mr. Reid issued a statement praising the West Virginia senator who is well-known for directing untold billions in federal spending to his home state over the decades.
“Last year, Senator Byrd cast his 18,000th Senate vote, by far a record in the history of our institution,” Mr. Reid said. “Every day of his Senate career has been dedicated to strengthening the republic that he loves with all his heart.”
Mr. Byrd who is serving his ninth term in the Senate, gets around the Capitol in a wheelchair, but he continues to be a formidable force and one of the most eloquent voices in the chamber, often delivering impassioned speeches that hearken to an earlier era when rhetorical flourishes were a matter of deep pride and when senators spent far more time listening to one another in person rather than monitoring floor proceedings from their office by watching C-Span.
He is one of the few senators who still enjoy engaging in colloquies with other lawmakers and who will shout out encouraging words when he agrees with someone else’s remarks.
In one of the funniest interactions in the Senate over the previous year, Senator Jim Bunning, Republican of Kentucky, barked a call for order in the Senate. And Mr. Byrd parked at his desk in his wheelchair, without looking up, cried out, “Who said that?”
“I did,” replied Mr. Bunning, who, before entering politics was a pitcher for the Philadelphia Phillies.
“Who are you?” Mr. Byrd demanded, then barely waiting for a reply said, “Oh, you. You are a great baseball man.”
The comment incensed Mr. Bunning, who growled: “I have the same rights as you. I am a senator.”
“Yeah, man,” Mr. Byrd shot back, drawing out his words slowly, in a mocking tone. “You’re a senator. Yes. You. Are.”
As with other leadership changes in Congress, Mr. Byrd’s decision to relinquish the Appropriations Committee post will have a domino effect. Mr. Inouye, in replacing him, will give up his chairmanship of the commerce committee.
That in turn creates a choice for Senator John D. Rockefeller IV of West Virginia, who is next in line for commerce, but who is also chairman of the Select Committee on Intelligence.
After Mr. Rockefeller, the next up for commerce would be Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts. But Mr. Kerry is also next up for the chairmanship of the Foreign Relations Committee, which is being vacated by Vice President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. Mr. Kerry has also been mentioned for a position in the Obama administration.
Either way, Mr. Kerry will give up his current chairmanship of the Small Business Committee. On Thursday, Mr. Reid suggested that post as a possibility for Senator Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, who many Senate Democrats want to punish for his zealous support of Senator John McCain, the Republican candidate for president.
Mr. Lieberman, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, is currently chairman of the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee. He wants to remain an ally of the Democrats, but he rejected Mr. Reid’s suggestion as unacceptable, aides said.