A Somber and Historic Day in the Senate

Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-WV, traveled one last journey to his beloved Senate on this beautiful, sunny Thursday, where he will lie in repose for six hours as throngs of colleagues and dignitaries paid their respects both to the senator and to his family.

The coffin made its somber journey outside the Capitol on the plaza, from the House side to the Senate, to symbolize Byrd's own journey in politics in the 1950's.

His long time staff greeted the hearse at the bottom of the steps leading to the Senate chamber, and walked alongside a military honor guard that brought the coffin up the stairs and inside the building.  Byrd's family joined the procession at the top of the stairs, following inside.

Many Washington luminaries filed into the chamber to bid farewell, from both sides of the aisle and from varying walks of life, a symbol of the reach the senator had in his more than half century of service.   From Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who served with Byrd on the Armed Services Committee when she was a member, to numerous, highly decorated military officers, to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-CA, West Virginia's Governor Joe Manchin, CIA Director Leon Panetta, and even a Japanese couple - the woman clad in a ceremonial dress, and a phalanx of staff members filed in to say good-bye to the man many called the "keeper of the flame" in the Senate, the "guardian of the rules."

A number of members from the Congressional Black Caucus crossed the building and into the Senate chamber, down to the well where Byrd's flag-draped coffin sat atop the same catafalque used to hold President Abraham Lincoln's casket.  Civil rights icon, Cong. John Lewis, D-GA, a CBC member, arrived to pay his respects, an especially poignant moment as he grasped the hand of one of Byrd's sisters firmly, smiling, a testament to Byrd's past as a former Ku Klux Klan member who apologized numerous times for it and worked hard to support minority populations.

Byrd's family - sisters, in-laws, grandchildren, and great grandchildren, seated in the well of the Senate, shooks hands with former Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle, D-SD, former Sens. Bob Kerrey, D-NE, Charles Robb, D-VA, with his wife, Lynda Bird (President Lyndon Johnson's daughter), Paul Sarbanes, D-MD, Alan Simpson, R-WY, and most of the current serving members, along with at least two dozen House members.

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia burst into the room after many of the officials had departed and made a b-line for the family.  He stooped low to shake each family member's hand, smiling and speaking to them softly.

It was a day marked mostly with smiles for the 92-year old, friends greeting old friends, many stopping briefly to pray before the coffin of their former colleague.

But it is a day that could be lost to posterity.  Senate Rules Committee Chairman Chuck Schumer, D-NY, informed the press Wednesday night by letter that the television cameras, which ironically, Byrd, himself, was partially responsible for, that normally broadcast the chamber's proceedings on CSPAN would not be turned on.

Citing Senate rules for no coverage when the Senate is not officially in session, as is the case on this somber, historic day, Schumer added, "The family of Senator Byrd has requested that no such coverage be allowed."

There was no other explanation as to why the public chamber proceedings and the cameras, paid for with taxpayer money, were refused.

People around the world, where Byrd is no stranger, including members of the Armed Forces whom Byrd fought for atop his perch at the Appropriations Committee and on the Armed Services Committee, would have to content themselves with a handful of still photographs. Even that level of access was nearly refused.

Other funerals inside the Capitol have been televised in the past, such as for former Presidents Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford.

As well, reporters were hounded on the second floor of the Capitol, where members were gathering, at first refused access to a public hallway, then forbidden to take still photographs. There was more of a security crackdown in place than during a presidential inauguration, with Schumer's Rules Committee staff policing the public corridors, a sight no reporter have ever witnessed.

The extraordinary blackout of coverage of a man who loved the Fourth Estate was difficult to understand and threatened to overshadow a remarkable day.

The Senate chamber is open to the public until 3:45pm Thursday, after which time Byrd's coffin will be removed, put aboard a plane at Andrews Air Force base, and flown to Charleston, WV, where there will be a public viewing until Friday in the state capitol.

President Obama, Vice President Biden, and many senators and congressmen are expected to make the journey for a Friday morning ceremony at the capitol.

Byrd will then be flown back and laid to rest at a private ceremony in Columbia Gardens Cemetery in Arlington, VA, where the senator's beloved wife, Erma, is already buried.