Mr. CARDIN. Mr. President, I rise with a heavy heart to pay tribute to our friend and colleague who died early this morning, Senator Robert C. Byrd, the longest-serving Member in the illustrious history of the United States Congress, the longest-serving Senator, and the only Senator in U.S. history elected to nine full terms. Considering that Senator Byrd won his first election, to the West Virginia House of Delegates, in 1946, it may be that he was the longest-serving elected official in
history! His passing is a profound loss to all Americans, to his beloved constituents in West Virginia, and particularly to the institution of the United State Senate and those of us who serve here. The Senate had no greater champion than Robert Byrd, no one with his understanding of the Senate’s unique character, role, promise, history, and parliamentary procedures.
When Robert Byrd was elected to the Senate in 1958 after serving in the House for six years, he was part of a large, distinguished class that included such future giants as Hugh Scott (R-PA), Gene McCarthy (D-MN), Edmund Muskie (D-ME), and Philip Hart (D-MI). He surpassed them all.
According to the Senate Historical Office, Robert Byrd was the 1,579
th person to become a United States Senator. Since he was elected to the Senate, another 335 individuals have become United States Senators. All in all, Robert Byrd served with over 400 other Senators. And I am certain that each one of them held their colleague, as I do, in the highest esteem.
Senator Byrd’s modest beginnings in the hard-scrabble coal fields of Appalachia are well known. After his mother died during the 1918 Flu Pandemic, Senator Byrd went to live with an aunt and uncle who adopted him and raised him in a house without running water or electricity. He pumped gas and butchered hogs. During World War II, he was a welder and built cargo ships in Baltimore and Tampa Bay. After the war, he successfully ran for the West Virginia House of Delegates and four years later, the State’s Senate, before entering Congress in 1953. All in all, he ran for and was elected to office 15 times (not counting primaries) without suffering a single defeat. Suffice it to say that his life is the quintessential American success story. I think every young American should learn about Senator Byrd’s life as an example of what hard work and persistence and devotion can accomplish in this country. He understood better than most people the importance of being educated, not
just for embarking on a successful career, but as an end to itself. He was well-read and could recite from memory long passages from the Bible, and from great poets and authors. He was a fine historian, not just of the Founding Fathers and the United States Senate, but of ancient Greece and Rome and England.
Senator Byrd married his high-school sweetheart, Erma Ora James, shortly after they both graduated from Mark Twain High School – where he was valedictorian – in 1937. He was too poor to afford college right away and wouldn’t receive his degree from Marshall University until 60 years later – when he was 77. In between, he did something no other Member of Congress has ever done: he enrolled in law school – at American University – and in 10 years of part-time study while serving as a Member of Congress, he completed his law degree, which President John Kennedy presented to him. Senator Byrd was married to his beloved Erma for nearly 69 years, and was blessed with two daughters, six grandchildren, and seven great-grandchildren.
During his Senate tenure, Robert Byrd was elected to more leadership positions than any other Senator in history, including Majority and Minority Leader, whip, and President Pro Tempore. He cast 18,689 roll call votes. Only 29 other Senators in the history of the Republic have cast more than 10,000 votes; Strom Thurmond is the only other Senator to cast more than 16,000 votes. Senator Byrd’s attendance record over five decades – 97 percent – is as impressive as the sheer number of votes cast he cast.
Senator Byrd’s legislative accomplishments, from economic development and transportation to education and health care, are legendary. He steered the Panama Canal Treaty through the Senate and waged a lonely battle against the war in Iraq, leading an unsuccessful filibuster against the resolution granting President George W. Bush broad power to wage a preemptive war against Iraq. He claimed that his vote against the Iraq war resolution was the vote of which he was most proud for having cast over the course of his career. When U.S. military strikes on Iraq commenced on March 19, 2003, he stated,
Today I weep for my country. I have watched the events of recent months with a heavy, heavy heart. No more is the image of America one of strong, yet benevolent peacekeeper. The image of America has changed. Around the globe, our friends mistrust us, our word is disputed, our intentions are questioned. Instead of reasoning with those with whom we disagree, we demand obedience or threaten recrimination.
Senator Byrd was unabashedly determined to use his power as a Senator and as the chairman or ranking member of the Appropriations Committee to help lift his State out of grinding poverty. And he delivered for his constituents. It’s no surprise, then, that he won 100 percent of the vote of West Virginians in one election (1976), or frequently carried all 55 of West Virginia’s counties. And while he fervently supported the coal industry, he recognized the devastating environmental and social impact of mountaintop removal mining techniques and he called for an end to that practice.
In the meantime, he wrote five books, including the definitive history of the United States Senate.
Perhaps the highest tribute to Senator Byrd can be found in his biographical section of the
Almanac of American Politics, which states: “Robert Byrd… may come closest to the kind of senator the Founding Fathers had in mind than any other.” His fealty to the United States Senate and to the Constitution has served as an inspiration, a lesson, and a guiding light to all of us who have been privileged to follow him in this chamber.
Mr. President, in the last 10 months, we have lost two towering figures here in the Senate: Ted Kennedy and Robert Byrd – one of the Senate’s greatest legislators and without doubt its greatest defender. Former Senator Paul Sarbanes, whose seat I am privileged to hold, remarked that Senator Byrd liked to say that he never served
under any President, but was honored to serve
with many presidents. We can honor these twin giants by carrying on their legacies, by fighting to make America a better place for all Americans and by defending the Senate’s role as a co-equal, not subservient, branch of government.
When Senator Byrd became the longest-serving Member of Congress last November, I quoted Robert E. Lee in my floor statement. Lee said, “Duty is the most sublime word in our language. Do your duty in all things. You cannot do more. You should never wish to do less.” Senator Robert C. Byrd has done his duty in all things – to the Senate, to himself, to his family, to his State, to his Nation, and to God.
I am honored to join his and my colleagues here in the Senate, West Virginians, and all Americans in mourning the death, celebrating the life, and paying tribute to this great Senator and this great man.