Robert Byrd: The Senate in Transition

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When I moved to Washington in the mid-1990s, one of my first jobs was as C-SPAN’s Senate producer. My job was to monitor the Senate floor each day, as long as the chamber met. Sometimes, deep into the night.

I’d track the debate. Figure out what amendments and bills were coming up and try to decipher what the legislation did. Then I had to boil this down for the audience by writing explanatory graphics, scripts and doing voiceovers.

I enjoyed it. But to be honest, the Senate can be a little boring sometimes. The Senate will often sit, stalled for hours in a Quorum Call where no one comes to the floor to speak. And even when there were speeches or debate, observing the Senate floor could be tedious. Occasionally, senators would come to the floor, one after another, to deliver the most monotonous, wearisome remarks you’ve ever heard.

That’s when I’d hit the restroom, go buy a sandwich or head to the ATM out front. I knew that nothing of consequence would happen. And I quickly learned who I needed to pay attention to and who got a pass.

I’d keep my eyes peeled for Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-KS) or his successor Trent Lott (R-MS). Same with Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-SD). Sen. Dale Bumpers (D-AR) was probably the best orator in Congress. The sonorous voices of Sens. Ted Kennedy (D-MA) and Fritz Hollings (D-SC) would vibrate off the spittoons located at the front of the chamber. And it wouldn’t be a waste your time if you hung around to hear from Sens. Pete Domenici (R-NM), Al D’Amato (R-NY) or Phil Gramm (R-TX), either.

And then there was Robert C. Byrd.

It was as though Byrd were the EF Hutton of the Senate. When the senior senator from West Virginia spoke, people listened.

Sometimes, my C-SPAN colleagues would stop and listen in rapt attention to Byrd’s eloquence. Byrd’s presence converted C-SPAN2 into “must see TV.”

First, Byrd knew how to give a spellbinding speech. Secondly, you were probably going to learn something. Byrd would quote liberally from the Bible and Shakespeare and speak about the Roman Senate. He’d talk about the Venetians and the Carthaginians. Byrd’s knowledge of history and classical poetry were unmatched.

But most importantly, observing Byrd on the Senate floor was like stepping through a time portal. Byrd’s presentations were from another era, back before television cameras and before politics was distilled to 140 characters on Twitter. Byrd gave speeches. Robust speeches. And you imagined how the Senate used to function in the 19th century when a speech was the only means senators had to communicate with their constituents or persuade their fellow members.

Byrd’s time machine revealed how the Senate used to operate. And no other senators commanded attention quite like that.

But Byrd’s speeches weren’t the only thing that transfixed you when he took the floor. When it came to parliamentary jockeying, few could out-maneuver Byrd.

“I knew the rules about as well as anyone who ever came in here,” Byrd bragged to me in a 2006 interview. “And I knew how to use them, too.”

I was never in Washington when Byrd served as either majority or minority leader. But at C-SPAN, I watched old tapes of him going mano a mano with his Republican counterpart, Bob Dole and former Sen. Howard Baker (R-TN). Sometimes Byrd would outwit the GOP. Other times, the Republicans would get the best of Byrd. But it’s rare to see parliamentary gambits these days like the ones contrived by Byrd, Dole and Baker. And because they were parliamentary masters, it was fascinating to see who would emerge victorious at the end of those procedural machinations.

In his more than half-century in the Senate, Byrd served in both the majority and minority. But as everyone knows, the Senate rules actually favor the minority in many instances. And despite his stints as majority leader, Byrd sometimes proved to be nearly as powerful in the minority as he had been in the majority.

In 1994, Republicans seized control of the Senate and rolled out their ten-point “Contract With America.” The House had little trouble approving the items. But it was another matter in the Senate. Particularly with a Constitutional Balanced Budget Amendment.

Byrd fundamentally opposed the concept. He argued it was unconstitutional to turn over power of the purse to the executive. Byrd noted that the Roman Senate went into decline once it ceded control of the budget.

The Constitution requires a two-thirds vote to approve constitutional amendments. But Republicans couldn’t overcome a minority of opposition led by Byrd.

On that issue, Byrd’s service in the minority always reminded me of the famous lightsaber battle between Obi-Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader in the original Star Wars.

“Your powers are weak old man,” Vader famously warns Kenobi.

Unmoved, Kenobi parries Vader’s verbal thrust.

“Strike me down and I will become more powerful than you can possibly imagine,” Kenobi retorts.

Vader killed Kenobi. But Kenobi emerged as being more powerful in death than in life.

The same was true with Byrd serving in the minority. He was more powerful in the minority than in the majority. Sure, Byrd was aging. He wasn’t as nimble as he used to be. But like a Jedi Knight’s use of the Force, Kenobi used the Constitution and parliamentary finesse to defeat the balanced budget amendment, despite an overwhelming bipartisan majority which favored the plan.

Byrd’s Senate remarks weren’t always limited to policy, politics or history lessons. He often spoke of the friendships he forged with friends with whom he served alongside in the Senate. Such was the case in February, 1995 when Byrd paid tribute on the floor to the late-Sen. J. William Fulbright (D-AR).

From the Senate well, Byrd gestured around the chamber to where his former colleagues sat when he landed in the Senate in 1959.

“Clinton Anderson of New Mexico. Styles Bridges of New Hampshire. Paul Douglas of Illinois. Allen Ellender of Louisiana. Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota,” Byrd recited. He rapped on the desk of the legendary Sen. Richard Russell (D-GA). Byrd then invoked the names of Senate giants like Scoop Jackson, Lyndon Baines Johnson, Everett Dirksen and John F. Kennedy.

“All of these men are now passed from this earthly stage,” Byrd said, adding that those “who trod these halls and whose voices which once rang in this chamber” were gone.

Yet even in 1995, only Byrd remained. And he had many more years yet to serve.

Byrd continued his eulogy of Fulbright.

“Life is only a narrow isthmus. A narrow isthmus between the boundless oceans of two eternities,” Byrd said. “’There is no death,’ Longfellow said. ‘What seems so is transition.’”

The Senate is now in that transition Byrd spoke of. It’s transitioned from Byrd starting his career alongside LBJ, Kennedy and Dirksen. And then Byrd dying as he served alongside Sens. John Cornyn (R-TX), Scott Brown (R-MA) and Roland Burris (D-IL). Each of those senators now hold those same seats occupied in 1959 by Byrd contemporaries LBJ, Kennedy and Dirksen.

The Senate has transitioned from Byrd entering the body the same day as Sen. Thomas Dodd (D-CT). And departing as the desk mate of Sen. Chris Dodd (D-CT), the elder Dodd’s son.

“It’s hard to imagine him ever being a freshman senator,” the younger Dodd said Monday of Byrd.

The Senate features staggered terms with only one-third of its membership up for election at any one time. That’s the reason the Senate’s often described as a “continuing body.” And in Byrd’s passing, there is no death. Only transition.

Such is the way of the United States Senate.