Democrat Robert Byrd of West Virginia became the longest serving US senator in American history Monday – with several colleagues just behind him. First elected in 1958, Monday marked his 17,327th day in office.
Four years off Senator Byrd's pace, Sens. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts and Daniel Inouye (D) of Hawaii have each served more than 43 years in the Senate. Sen. Joseph Biden (D) of Delaware, elected in 1972 a few weeks shy of the constitutional age of 30, could eventually lap them all.
But there are few in line to take Byrd's place as a steady, often eloquent, defender of the Senate itself – the role that has most distinguished his career.
The reason? The number of lawmakers steeped in the history of the institutions in which they serve is on the ebb. Congressional scholars say that's because senators now see the office as a stepping-stone. In recent years, many of the most effective legislators have opted for jobs in the private sector.
"Many senators correctly conclude that the Senate is no longer the launching pad for the presidency that it once was," says Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick.
Many senators also complain that the job involves too much fundraising.
"It's not as desirable a job as it once was," says Julian Zelizer, a congressional historian at Boston University.
That hasn't stopped Byrd.
From the Bush doctrine of preemptive strikes to the line-item veto and balanced-budget amendment, he has balked at moves that would rein in constitutional powers he sees as reserved to the Congress.
"Senator Byrd is one of the few remaining institutionalists," says Louis Fisher, a constitutional law specialist with the Library of Congress. "He was very consistent right from the start. He never deviated."
Byrd learned the Senate the old-fashioned way: by a lifelong study of the chamber's arcane rules and procedures. His copy of "Riddick's Senate Procedure" – the textbook for how the Senate works – is heavily annotated in red pencil. When there's too much annotation to read the text, he starts over with a fresh copy. He reads dictionaries the same way.
In May 1993, he launched a series of lectures on the Senate floor in a bid to defeat the line-item veto, later ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. The lectures, delivered without notes, are riffs on how the decision to hand over the powers of the purse to a strong chief executive would erode the authority of the US Senate – just as it did with the Senate of the ancient Roman Republic. The US Government Printing Office published the lectures as "The Senate of the Roman Republic" in 1995.
In April, he began a new series of lectures on the Senate as an institution, aimed to caution his colleagues about a shift in powers from the Congress to the White House during the Bush years.
"A body of equals among individuals and among states, the Senate has been a difficult institution to lead," he said in the opening lecture on April 24. "Its deliberations have frustrated impatient presidents. Well, who cares? Senators don't care if they frustrate presidents. Presidents come and go. Senators may stay on and on and on."
The need for the Senate to act without haste has been a theme of his antiwar speeches, too. His first, on Oct. 3, 2002, opened with this line: "The great Roman historian, Titus Livius, said, 'All things will be clear and distinct to the man who does not hurry; haste is blind and improvident.' "
In the 1970s, senators on both sides of the aisle engaged the Nixon White House over balance-of-power issues, especially budget and war powers. "Almost every day, there was some kind of constitutional conflict, where members of Congress were upholding constitutional prerogatives," says Mr. Fisher. "They understood that their activities were important in protecting civil liberties and institutional roles and prerogatives."
"This is a low time," he adds, particularly for protecting such prerogatives as war powers and spending. In response to such criticisms, the House this week plans to debate the war in Iraq.
Running for a ninth six-year term, Byrd is facing what could be his toughest reelection campaign yet against millionaire GOP businessman John Raese. In response to all the plaudits from colleagues this week, Byrd said he gives the credit to the people of West Virginia who elected him, and to his late wife, Erma Byrd, who urged him to "be a senator."
It's a theme he urges on his colleagues. "He's been very chagrined that a lot of senators look at this as a jumping off spot to another office. He encourages senators to come to the Senate to be a senator," says spokesman Tom Gavin.