WASHINGTON – Sen. Robert Byrd, the longest-serving senator in history, is stepping down from his cherished post as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Byrd, 90, has become increasingly frail in recent years, and the move didn’t come as a surprise.
The West Virginia Democrat is a Senate icon and a legend in his own state, where he’s single-handedly responsible for directing huge sums of federal largess for roads, universities and economic development projects. It was a perk of his powerful perch as chairman or top minority member of the panel for the past two decades.
Before that, he was the Senate’s Democratic leader for 12 years.
Byrd said Friday he made the decision voluntarily, deciding it’s time for new leadership on the committee, which is among the most important in Congress for its control over more than $1 trillion in federal agencies’ budgets.
“A new day has dawned in Washington, and that is a good thing. For my part, I believe that it is time for a new day at the top of the Senate Appropriations Committee,” Byrd said in a statement. He said he would remain as chairman of the subcommittee that writes the budget for the Department of Homeland Security.
Byrd will be replaced by Hawaii Democrat Daniel Inouye, 84, who’s served in the Senate since 1963, and also has a reputation for shipping federal dollars back to his state. Inouye said he was “humbled” at the prospect of taking over the panel in January when the new Congress convenes.
While the decision was made by Byrd, it came after a months-long whispering campaign by some of his Senate colleagues and their staff aides in hopes of easing him out. Byrd withstood the pressure earlier this year, but it resumed in recent days.
Byrd did not make reference to the leadership pressure in his statement, though he had criticized Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., over an account in Politico.com that cited anonymous sources as saying Reid was now seeking to ease Byrd out of his chairmanship.
“I want to stress that this is a decision I made only after much personal soul-searching, and after being sure of the substantial Democratic pickup of seats in the Senate,” Byrd said. “I am now confident that stepping aside as chairman will not adversely impact my home state of West Virginia.”
Byrd has become significantly more frail since Erma, his wife of almost 69 years, died two years ago. He has taken to a wheelchair and reads his speeches, often with some difficulty.
In the Senate, Byrd gained a reputation for hard work, mastery of the rules and a sometimes imperious leadership style. He once said that as majority leader, he “ran the Senate like a stern parent.”
More recently, he’s been a mentor to many senators, including Majority Leader Reid and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.
“Senator Byrd taught me, from my very first day in the Senate, that no one person is bigger or more important than the Senate as a whole,” Murray said. “Today is just one more example of that legendary affection for the Senate.”
Byrd won a ninth term two years ago after becoming an unlikely darling of the liberal blogosphere for his early, fervent opposition to the Iraq war while many other party leaders supported President Bush on the war.