Congress off track, a Senate sage warns
Interview: On Iraq, one senator is as critical of his colleagues as he is of Bush.
WASHINGTON — When Robert Byrd holds forth, usually alone, on the floor of the US Senate, all that's missing is the toga.
The eight-term Democrat from West Virginia is 21 months from passing the late Strom Thurmond as the longest serving US senator in history. But for all the bruising battles behind him, but he's not marking time. Instead, he's in the fight of his life.
This time, it's not for personal power or to pull in federal funds for his state, interrelated themes for much of his career. It's for the prerogatives of the Senate itself, which he says are being eclipsed by a presidency he calls "reckless and arrogant" in his latest book, "Losing America."
"The Roman Senate lost its nerve, lost its way and succumbed," he says in an interview in his first floor Capitol office. "That's what we are seeing here in our own country. Our own Senate lost its way when it voted for the Iraq resolution. Lost its nerve, lost its way, lost its vision. Where there is no vision, the people perish."
He is also standing up for Congress's authority in a fight against the World Trade Organization, through the so-called Byrd amendment, a trade remedy he slipped into an agriculture spending bill in 2000, later found to be in violation of international law. Last month, the WTO authorized retaliation. President Bush supports repealing the measure, but Byrd and, so far, a majority of the Senate, are not backing down.
While not everyone agrees with his positions, Congress watchers say these may be Byrd's finest hours in the US Senate, as he fights for what he sees as an embattled institution.
"He really has a sense not only of the importance of the Senate but its history. That's part of what adds power to his speeches about the war," says Julian Zelizer, a political historian at Boston University.
Byrd hasn't always had the best and brightest record as a legislator, says Mr. Zelizer, referring Byrd's early (and brief) ties to racist groups and a reputation as the "king of pork" while claiming to be a fiscal conservative. "This is one of those moments in a politician's life when they become transformed into a statesman, not a politician. It doesn't happen very often, but it's happening to him now,"
When confronted with tough votes on the war in Iraq and a rushed vote on a new Department of Homeland Security in the weeks before the 2002 election, many Democrats followed the lead of pollsters who said: Don't risk looking weak on defense. Byrd opposed both. It's a stand that experts say may have cost Democrats the Senate in 2002.
But in the run-up to the 2004 vote, Democrats from the top of the presidential ticket on down are sharpening their attacks on the president's conduct of the war. Yet no one has been sharper than than Byrd, who has been as critical of his colleagues as of the White House.
"We stand passively mute in the United States Senate, paralyzed by our own uncertainty, seemingly stunned by the sheer turmoil of events," he intoned on the floor of the Senate on Feb. 12, 2003, on the eve of war.
"And this is no small conflagration we contemplate.... This coming battle, if it materializes, represents a turning point in US foreign policy and possibly a turning point in the recent history of the world," he added. The speech was reprinted around the globe.
A self-taught man with a near photographic memory, Byrd began schooling himself on political history from his earliest days in the Senate. He has held every top office in the Senate, currently serving as ranking Democrat on the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee.
But his most lasting record may the power of his words - and the sheer number of hours he has spent on the floor of the Senate. In the run-up to the 200th anniversary of the Senate in 1989, he launched a series of addresses on Senate history, often delivered into the night to an empty hall. His four-volume, 26-pound history of the Senate, based on these addresses and support from the Senate Historical Office, is cited by scholars as an essential reference.
He also published a history of the Roman Senate - the result of his one-man campaign to defeat the Clinton administration's bid for a line-item veto.
"Give to any president of the United States the power over the purse, and we will have proved ourselves faithless to our oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States, just as the Roman Senate proved itself faithless to the constitution of the Roman Republic when it surrendered the power over the purse to the Roman "Caesars" and the Roman emperors 2,000 years ago!" he said in the final address of 14, all delivered without notes. The bill passed, but was overturned by the Supreme Court.
The writing and high style is all his own. Byrd says he still writes early in the morning, getting up at 3:30 or 4 a.m. to research or polish an address. While it's fashionable in weight-obsessed Washington to discuss early morning exercise routines, Byrd recommends a rigorous regime of the mind. "No ball game ever changed history," he says.
Historians say his defense of the importance of Congress, even in wartime, may be his most lasting legacy. As one of the few senators who lived through the Vietnam era, Byrd is constantly cautioning his colleagues on the perils of not asking enough questions or the right questions of a president bent on taking the nation to war.
Supporters say this book, even in a presidential year, is not another political diatribe. "He's just as mad at the Senate as he is at the president," says Raymond Smock, director of the Robert C. Byrd Center for Legislative studies at Shepherd University in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. "The Congress is supposed to be a coequal branch" of government.