Senator Robert C. Byrd, 92, was wheeled away from the Capitol on Tuesday after a vote on health care legislation.
December 24, 2009
Despite Fragile Health, Byrd Is Present for Votes
By MARK LEIBOVICH
WASHINGTON — In what has become a poignant ritual during a fractious debate, Senator Robert C. Byrd, the 92-year-old Democrat from West Virginia, was pushed onto the Senate floor in his plaid wheelchair Wednesday afternoon. It was his third appearance of the week, each prompted by a vital vote.
There was Mr. Byrd, the longest-tenured senator in history, looking stately in a navy blue suit, waving his long wrist above his head to signal “aye” or thumbs down to say “nay.” He greeted a procession of colleagues paying respects in the Senate well — the Democratic leader, Harry Reid, patting him warmly on the arm, Senator Orrin G. Hatch, Republican of Utah, shaking his hand and whispering something, Senator Barbara Boxer, Democrat of California, applauding his entry.
Earlier this week there were standing ovations, waves, hugs and the occasional moist eyes.
Senate Democrats need every one of their 60 votes to prevail in the donnybrook over a health care overhaul, and this week faced a series of cloture votes — required to end debate on the bill — to move the legislation ahead. That placed no small burden on the frail nonagenarian, who spent six weeks in the hospital last spring with a staph infection, and who did not deliver his customary Christmas address on the Senate floor this year.
Mr. Byrd, bundled in coat, scarf and hat, showed up to vote after a snowstorm late Sunday night and at the crack of dawn Tuesday, lending additional drama to his appearances. He is expected to be on the floor early Thursday for a final vote on the health care bill and on one that would provide an increase in the federal debt limit.
“When he comes onto the floor and the members cheer and his face lights up, it just makes our day,” said Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York.
“We hope his strength holds out,” said Senator Frank R. Lautenberg, Democrat of New Jersey and the second-oldest member of the Senate at 85. “We see someone who is a giant and who is not as well as we would like to see him. It’s pretty tough, pretty tough. But Bob has a place here.”
Ensuring that Mr. Byrd takes that “place” on the floor at important times has been a preoccupation of the Senate’s Democratic leadership team. (Mr. Byrd has missed slightly more than 40 percent of roll call votes in 2009.) Aides say Mr. Reid informs Mr. Byrd’s office as early as possible about votes, and Mr. Byrd will then make the short elevator ride from his Capitol office to the Senate floor.
Mr. Byrd, whose wife of 68 years died in 2006, lives in McLean, Va., where he is attended by a live-in nurse. As the president pro tempore of the Senate (which places him third in the presidential line of succession), Mr. Byrd is provided a round-the-clock security detail from the United States Capitol Police, who ferry him to and from the Capitol.
When Mr. Byrd was hospitalized last spring, Mr. Reid acknowledged that he had spoken to West Virginia’s governor, Joe Manchin III, about replacing Mr. Byrd in the event that he could not carry out his duties. Mr. Manchin, a Democrat, would appoint an interim successor to finish Mr. Byrd’s term — and a plan remains in place to replace him quickly, said staffers in the Democratic leadership.
Mr. Reid was also actively involved last summer in lobbying the Democratic governor of Massachusetts, Deval Patrick, to ensure a quick replacement for Senator Edward M. Kennedy, who died Aug. 25. (Mr. Patrick appointed Paul G. Kirk Jr. to finish Mr. Kennedy’s term, but only after the state’s Democratic-controlled legislature engineered a change to a state law that had previously called for the vacant seat to be filled by special election.)
Mr. Manchin told The Associated Press in June that any speculation about Mr. Byrd’s health was “callous” and “awful.”
It is also rampant, “something that’s in the back of everybody’s mind’s,” said one senator who declined to be named speaking publicly about Mr. Byrd.
The degree to which Mr. Byrd’s condition looms over the proceedings was underscored Monday when Senator Tom Coburn, Republican of Oklahoma, outraged Democrats in a floor speech by declaring that “what the American people ought to pray is that somebody can’t make the vote.” Many assumed he was talking about Mr. Byrd, whose term ends in 2012.
Mr. Coburn “does not wish misfortune on anyone,” his spokesman, John Hart, said in a statement after Senator Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois complained that Mr. Coburn had “crossed the line.”
(Some conservative bloggers have been particularly unrestrained: Mr. Byrd should “do the right thing and expire,” wrote Bob Owens, in a post to the Confederate Yankee blog titled “All I Want Is a Byrd Dropping for Christmas.”)
Mr. Byrd’s aides and colleagues emphasize that the senator is feeling well and vigorous, fully recovered from his infection and working every day. He met Monday in his office with the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Lisa P. Jackson, to discuss issues related to mining, a major industry in West Virginia.
Even if the health care legislation passes the Senate, speculation over Mr. Byrd’s health will continue. The House and Senate bills must be reconciled, and both chambers must vote on the final legislation before President Obama can sign it. That process should extend into the new year, as will another round of Byrd watching.
“He has been fragile for some years now,” said West Virginia’s other Democratic senator, John D. Rockefeller IV. “But he’s always there.”