WASHINGTON – Top Democrats are trying to put to rest rumors about a plan to sideline one of the Senate's most venerable — and frail — members, Robert Byrd.
Byrd, D-W.Va., is 90 and needs assistance to move around the Senate, and his signature oratory style has slowed significantly in recent years. He also is the chairman of one of the most powerful Senate panels, the Appropriations Committee.
The reports surfaced Tuesday morning in The Politico, which cited unnamed congressional sources saying that some Senate Democrats are discussing ways to put a more junior committee member in charge of the day-to-day operations of the Senate's chief budgetary panel due to questions over his ability to physically handle the job.
The Politico reported there also is broad discontent over Byrd's management of the committee and laid blame at his feet for delays that have become public spectacle as Congress nears the three-month mark without an approved budget for the current fiscal year.
The sources told the paper the appropriations process was lacking leadership needed to prod it along, referring to Byrd's office and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
But any such plans to idle Byrd appeared dead on arrival in top Democratic circles, sources told FOX News.
One senior Democratic leadership aide said: "There are always members that grumble about the appropriations process," but added that the reports about Byrd are "total bunk."
And aides to a number of top senators in the appropriations and budget process said there are no such plans. Three aides said there has been some talk about the matter, but there is "no there there."
Byrd spokesman Jesse Jacobs pointed out that Reid and Sen. Patty Murray — who reportedly would replace Byrd under one of the scenarios discussed — denied the story, and Jacobs defended Byrd's handling of budget matters.
"The Senate Appropriations Committee did its job reporting all 12 appropriations bills under its jurisdiction. It is up to the leadership to schedule them for a vote," Jacobs said. "The frustration on the part of members is that we are in this position because the president threatened to veto appropriations bills before they were even acted upon, resulting in this omnibus process."
He added: "Quite frankly, no matter who is chair, we believe we would find ourselves in the exact same position as we are today with the omnibus," the term used for the catch-all spending legislation wrapping outstanding spending bills.
The bill, as passed by the House, stands at 1,482 pages and $517 billion, plus another $31 billion for war funding specifically for Afghanistan — although the Senate is expected to redirect some money toward use in Iraq, as the president has requested. The Senate was expected to vote on the bill later Tuesday.
The Politico quoted Jacobs saying Byrd has "every intention of continuing his service as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee."
A spokesman for Reid stood strongly behind Byrd.
"Sen. Byrd’s experience and respect for the Senate speak for themselves. He has no peer," Reid spokesman Jim Manley said.
"The Appropriations Committee did an outstanding job this year despite an all-out effort by the White House to try to again shortchange the priorities of the American people," Manley said.
Murray told The Politico there was no leadership plan to replace Byrd and said no one has talked to her about such a plan.
"I have not had any discussions with anyone."