It was a poignant moment in the Senate Monday as the chamber opened its session in an unusual fashion. With the passing of Sen. Robert Byrd, D-WV, the Senate was without its top official, known as the President Pro Tempore, and without the usual designee in his stead - a designation requiring Byrd's signature. The Senate had to be opened by its Secretary, Nancy Erickson.
Then the Senate Chaplain, the Rev. Barry Black, in his daily prayer, called Byrd "my friend" and prayed, "Lord, you gave him courage to make course corrections both privately and publicly empowered him to oppose without bitterness, to compromise with wisdom, and to yield without being defeated."
With the unanimous election and hasty swearing in of Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-HI, to replace Byrd, the chamber opened up for tributes to its longest serving and perhaps most beloved member.
One by one, senior members of the chamber told personal stories of remembrance of the flamboyant West Virginian, as cameras showed the Byrd's desk draped in mourning black with a vase of roses, the traditional display of respect for a deceased member.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-NV, who served for years on the Appropriations Committee with Byrd, recalled going to West Virginia at his colleague's invitation to attend an exchange program with members from the British Parliament.
Reid recalled Byrd having his favorite Bluegrass music playing and then said the jovial West Virginian, famous for his uncanny memory, "proceeded to pronounce the rein of the British monarchs from the beginning to the end. He would give the dates that they served, some of the more difficult spellings, he would spell the name, and he would, as I indicated, if it was something that really he wanted to talk about that they had accomplished that he thought was noteworthy, he would tell us about that."
It was an hour and a half-long performance that Reid said "stunned" the British officials.
The GOP leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, recalled a cliffhanger vote for which he lobbied Sen. Byrd. McConnell, a fierce First Amendment advocate, found himself at odds with most members of his party in 2006 when he voted to oppose a constitutional amendment to ban flag-burning. He said before the vote, which he knew would be close, he went to Byrd, suspecting the Senate's top defender of the Constitution (in fact, he always carried a diminutive copy in his breast copy) might be open to the free speech argument.
Indeed, Byrd was and voted against the amendment, which fell one vote short of the required two-thirds majority for passage.
Byrd's fellow West Virginian, Jay Rockefeller, a Democrat, told of how the two shared a personal tragedy, the loss of a treasured family member to Alzheimer's. Rockefeller, who lost his mother to the disease, said Byrd, as many knew, was deeply pained at the lost of his childhood sweetheart, Erma James.
"I always felt badly that I couldn't give him comfort and I couldn't say something to him that would relinquish his pain which was evident and obvious, very obvious in private," Rockefeller said, adding, "With sadness in my heart, I also have joy at the thought of my friend united with his precious Erma, with his dear grandson that he lost at a young age."
Byrd was called by more than one senator Monday the "guardian of the Senate rules." Sen. Arlen Specter, D-PA, who also served for years with Byrd on the Appropriations Committee, called his friend "a colossus" and "a fierce fighter" for the separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches.
Senators one after another, told of a special school Byrd held for freshmen, an orientation on what it means to serve in the U.S. Senate. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-TN, said, "He would begin by saying, 'You are presently occupying what I would consider to be hallowed ground."
Byrd would remind senators, according to Specter, "We serve with presidents. We don't serve under them."
Sen. Chris Dodd, D-CT, who's own father was sworn in alongside the young Byrd in January 1959, recalled being there for that event and then returning in the summer of 1961 as a page listening to the "eloquent speeches" Byrd would give even as a young senator. "Even then he had a gentlemanly manner," Dodd remembered wistfully.
Dodd, who is retiring this year, pulled a pocket Constitution that Byrd had given him, an act bestowed on all freshmen by the elder statesman, and read the inscription, "To my friend, Chris Dodd, with great esteem." Dodd said, "I suspect in the days ahead many members to take to the floor and pull the Constitution from their pocket, like mine, tattered and worn." Dodd also said Byrd had given him "a stern" lecture about its contents, as well.
Sure enough, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-IL, hours later, pulled out his copy, calling it Byrd's "North Star." Durbin, for his part, recounted a story in which a House Republican had dared to chastise Byrd, then chairman of the Appropriations Committee, for earmarks the senator had made for West Virginia projects.
Paraphrasing what Byrd said at the time to the congressman, Durbin said, "In 1830, in January of 1830, January the 19th, 1830, which if my memory serves me was a Thursday, Daniel Webster and Mr. (Senator Robert) Hayne engaged in an historic debate" - with Byrd going on at some length to explain that the Senate, unlike the House, is populated by two members from every state, regardless of size, and it being the responsibility of the senator to fight for his state.
Sen. Jon Tester, D-MT, said Byrd liked to call him "the mountain man," and Tester took that as a compliment, coming from a fellow mountain statesman. Tester recounted a shared life history with Byrd, whom he called, "one of the greatest men I have met here," saying both had married their childhood sweethearts and both were from humble beginnings, working as meat cutters. Tester, a large man, said Byrd liked to try to guess his weight and was quite good at it, having worked with meat products. "Wouldn't you know it, he always came between one or two pounds," Tester said, a fact that often sent the young senator straight to the gym for a workout, he said.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-VT, recalled Byrd pulling out his fiddle and playing a tune for members with the incoming President Pro Tempore, Sen. Inouye, who played the piano with his one hand. Inouye lost an arm from a combat injury in World War II.
"It tugs at your heart and tugs at your soul to see it," Leahy said Tuesday, as he turned to see Byrd's desk draped in black, adding, "He was an extremely accomplished legislator and an extraordinary American."
Every senator who has served with Byrd has been touched by his passing, with perhaps the most poignant statement coming from his longtime friend and fellow Appropriations Committee leader, the former senator, Ted Stevens, a Republican of Alaska, who called Byrd, "one of the kindest men I have ever known."
"After my daughter Lily was born in 1981, Senator Byrd made a floor statement celebrating the Senate's year of the daughter - Ashley Biden, Molly Tsongas, and Lily Stevens," the senator recalled in an e-mailed statement, adding, "While he was partisan, Senator Byrd put friendship above any political consideration. He was literally a Senator from the “old school” - he did all he could to preserve the traditions and Rules of the Senate. His passing brings an enormous hole in the Senate - for Senator Byrd’s role in protecting those Rules is almost impossible to replace."
"I think that he leaves a void that probably cannot be filled, but I'm lifted by the knowledge of his deep and abiding faith," Rockefeller said, quoting from a song Byrd often sang, Amazing Grace, saying, "'Yea when this flesh and heart shall fail, and mortal life shall cease, I shall possess within the veil a life of joy and peace.' So peace and Godspeed Senator Byrd, and peace to your family and your loyal staff."