Byrd will hold Senate to the letter of the parchment
Unofficial guardian of Senate rules will shape the outcome of Clinton trial.
WASHINGTON — Sen. Robert Byrd objected when a blind Senate aide wanted to use her seeing eye dog to navigate the Senate floor. The reason: No animals allowed without a special rule.
Last year, he succeeded in banning laptop computers from the floor. The rules just don't provide for them, he said.
As the preeminent scholar and guardian of Senate tradition both petty and grand, the West Virginia Democrat is now set to play his most significant role ever in a 40-year career as master institutionalist. He's expected to be pivotal in deciding key procedural issues in the upcoming trial of President Clinton.
And when the Senate convenes next week to try a sitting president for only the second time in American history, Senator Byrd's concerns will be starkly different from the other 99 senators in the room.
"Whereas others might be more concerned about the outcome, he is more interested in the process," says Mark Rozell, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania. "The process has to be respected, and for Byrd that is first and foremost."
While Byrd is not among the most powerful of senators, he's armed with arguably the most sophisticated understanding of the often-Byzantine Senate rules. He authored the two-volume history "The Senate 1789-1989," as well as "The Senate of the Roman Republic: Addresses on the History of Roman Constitutionalism."
His understanding of the institution commands both respect and fear. In a finger-wagging warning on the Senate floor, the onetime welder and meat cutter cautioned the White House against seeking to inappropriately lobby senators. "Don't tamper with this jury," Byrd said grimly.
More recently, he has made it clear that the warning goes for anyone but current members seeking to influence the opinion of a senator. The White House seems to be listening, and may be more concerned over Byrd's role as rule keeper, than anti-Clinton partisans.
"No. 1, he's very touchy and No. 2, everyone listens to him," says Allan Lichtman, history department chairman at the American University in Washington. "There are zero people bad-mouthing him."
Byrd in recent years has intervened regularly in protecting Senate prerogatives, battling against the balanced budget amendment and the line item veto.
During the budget crisis of 1995, he took to the Senate floor for a trademark address. The harsh partisanship that characterized the day was his target, delivered in his usual flourishing oratory: "Little did I know when I came here that I would live to see Pygmies stride like Colossus while marveling, like Aesop's fly, sitting on the axle of a chariot, 'My what a dust do I raise!' "
Besides his Latinesque linguistics, Byrd is also well known for bringing federal largess to his home state. Self- described as West Virginia's billion-dollar industry, he has been successful in providing his state with key federal jobs - everything from an FBI office in Clarksburg to a NASA research center in Wheeling.
"You might as well slap my wife as take the highway money from West Virginia," he is quoted.
A former majority leader, Byrd is the first senator to cast 14,000 votes. He's surpassed in seniority by only one other senator, South Carolina Republican Strom Thurmond, who won office four years earlier.
In the days left before the trial, Byrd is not poring over the tonnage of less-examined evidence in cardboard boxes or legal decisions to glean more specific definitions of what amounts to perjury in the eyes of the courts. Instead his Yoda-like preparation includes reading up on histories of the American colonies and fundamentals of the US Constitution.
Byrd's paramount concern is that the Senate follow the process to the letter of the parchment. The trial will be guided by 26 rules drawn up in 1868 for the trial of President Andrew Johnson. They cover everything from the exact time the proceedings start (1 p.m., but not on a Sunday) to the oath taken by each senator to dispense impartial justice.
For those who want to see a quick trial at the expense of the rules, Byrd stands with a fist full of sand, ready to throw it into the Senate machinery to bring the process to a halt.
Despite the wide respect Byrd commands, not everyone agrees with his interpretation of the rules.
"Having bumped up against him on many occasions; he's a formidable foe," says Sen. Rick Santorum (R) of Pennsylvania, who battled with Byrd in his first month in office over the balanced-budget amendment.
"I don't think this is a sacred process," says Senator Santorum, born the same year Byrd was first elected to the Senate. "It's quasi-judicial, quasi-legislative. I don't see it as necessarily unseemly if members were to be courted."
And if history is any guide, says American University's Lichtman, activity outside the normal strictures of the Senate could in fact influence the outcome of the trial.
"In the Johnson case, they were cutting deals behind the scenes," he says. "Johnson himself met with senators."
Nevertheless, Byrd is expected to remain firm in his demands for procedural fidelity.
"Byrd is a cantankerous fellow and when he gets his back up, he can be firm," says Georgetown University political scientist Clyde Wilcox, a West Virginia native.