Robert C. Byrd, who used his record tenure as a United States senator to fight for the primacy of the legislative branch of government and to build a modern West Virginia with vast amounts of federal money, died at about 3 a.m. Monday, his office said. He was 92.
Senator Robert Byrd speaking in Washington in April 2005.
He had been in failing health for several years.
Mr. Byrd’s death comes as Senate Democrats are working to pass the final version of the financial overhaul bill and win other procedural battles in the week before the Independence Day recess. In the polarized atmosphere of Washington, President Obama’s agenda seemed to hinge on Mr. Byrd’s health. Earlier this year, in the final days of the health care debate, the ailing senator was pushed onto the Senate floor in his plaid wheelchair so he could cast his votes.
Mr. Byrd served 51 years in the Senate, longer than anyone in American history, and with his six years in the House, he was the longest-serving member of Congress. He held a number of Senate offices, including majority and minority leader and president pro tem.
But the post that gave him the most satisfaction was chairman of the Appropriations Committee, with its power of the purse — a post he gave up only last year as his health declined. A New Deal Democrat, Mr. Byrd used the position in large part to battle persistent poverty in West Virginia, which he called “one of the rock bottomest of states.”
He lived that poverty growing up in mining towns, and it fueled his ambition. As he wrote in his autobiography, “Robert C. Byrd: Child of the Appalachian Coalfields” (West Virginia University Press, 2005), “it has been my constant desire to improve the lives of the people who have sent me to Washington time and time again.”
“I lost no opportunity,” he added, “to promote funding for programs and projects of benefit to the people back home.”
That attention brought the state billions of dollars for highways, federal offices, research institutes and dams.
Mr. Byrd was the valedictorian of his high school class but was unable to afford college. It was not until he was in his 30s and 40s that he took college courses. But he was profoundly self-educated and well read. His Senate speeches sparkled with citations from Shakespeare, the King James version of the Bible and the histories of England, Greece and Rome.
As a champion of the legislative branch, he found cautionary tales in those histories. In 1993, as Congress weighed a line-item veto, which would have given President Bill Clinton the power to strike individual spending measures from bills passed by Congress, Mr. Byrd delivered 14 speeches on the history of Rome and the role of its Senate.
“Gaius Julius Caesar did not seize power in Rome,” he said. Rather, he said, “the Roman Senate thrust power on Caesar deliberately, with forethought, with surrender, with intent to escape from responsibility.”
A decade later, Mr. Byrd saw a similar lack of Congressional spine. In deferring to President George W. Bush on the Iraq war, Congress had shown a willingness to “hand over, for the foreseeable future, its constitutional power to declare war,” he wrote in “Losing America: Confronting a Reckless and Arrogant Presidency” (Norton, 2004).
In 2007, at the unveiling of a portrait of Mr. Byrd in the Old Senate Chamber, former Senator Paul S. Sarbanes of Maryland, a colleague of 30 years, recalled that Mr. Byrd had taught him how to answer when a constituent asked, “How many presidents have you served under?”
“None,” was Mr. Byrd’s reply, Mr. Sarbanes said. “I have served with presidents, not under them.”
Mr. Byrd’s perspective on the world changed over the years. He filibustered against the 1964 Civil Rights Act and supported the Vietnam War only to come to back civil rights measures and criticize the Iraq war. Rating his voting record in 1964, Americans for Democratic Action, the liberal lobbying group, found that his views and the organization’s were aligned only 16 percent of the time. In 2005, he got an A.D.A. rating of 95.
Mr. Byrd’s political life could be traced to his early involvement with the Ku Klux Klan, an association that almost thwarted his career and clouded it intermittently for years afterward.
In the early 1940s, he organized a 150-member klavern, or chapter, of the Klan in Sophia, W.Va., and was chosen its leader at a meeting. After the meeting, Joel L. Baskin, the Klan’s grand dragon for the region, suggested that Mr. Byrd use his “talents for leadership” by going into politics.
“Suddenly, lights flashed in my mind!” Mr. Byrd later wrote. “Someone important had recognized my abilities.”
Mr. Byrd insisted that his klavern had never conducted white-supremacist marches or engaged in racial violence. He said in his autobiography that he had joined the Klan because he shared its anti-Communist creed and wanted to be associated with the leading people in his part of West Virginia. He conceded, however, that he also “reflected the fears and prejudices” of the time.
His opponents used his Klan membership against him during his first run for the House of Representatives in 1952; Democratic leaders urged him to drop out of the race. But he stayed in and won, then spent decades apologizing for what he called a “sad mistake.”
He went on to vote for civil rights legislation in 1957 and 1960, but when the more sweeping Civil Rights Act was before Congress in 1964, he filibustered for an entire night against it, saying the measure was an infringement on states’ rights. He backed civil rights legislation consistently only after becoming a party leader in the Senate.
In the Senate, he was the Democratic leader from 1977 to 1989, though at the same time something of a loner. He was not particularly well liked, and some senators feared him as a threat to their own spending projects. But he was deeply respected as a voice of the institution.
“His life is the Senate,” said Bob Dole, the former senator from Kansas and Republican leader. “He knows more about it than anyone living or dead. He doesn’t watch television. He doesn’t follow sports. He’s dedicated his life to the institution and his family.”
Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, who lost the position of majority whip to Mr. Byrd in 1971 but who later became a friend and ally, especially in their opposition to the Iraq war, said in 2005 that Mr. Byrd’s legacy would be “his passion for preserving the institution and its prerogatives.”
“That is the legacy he would want,” Mr. Kennedy said, “and I think it is the legacy that has been earned over a very long period of time. And I think there is uniform respect for him for that in the Senate, even from the people who have differed with him.”
Mr. Byrd’s respect and affection for Mr. Kennedy ran deep. In 2008, Mr. Byrd was distraught on the Senate floor after learning that a malignant tumor had been discovered in Mr. Kennedy’s brain. “Ted, Ted, my dear friend, I love you and miss you,” Mr. Byrd said, his voice breaking.
In January 2009, when Mr. Kennedy suffered a seizure and collapsed during an inaugural luncheon for President Obama at the Capitol, Mr. Byrd, who was in a wheelchair next to him, grew emotional and had to leave the room after Mr. Kennedy was wheeled out.
And after Mr. Kennedy died that August, Mr. Byrd was present when the hearse bearing the body, on its way to Arlington National Cemetery, stopped at the steps of the Capitol so members of Congress and the Congressional staff could pay their respects. Mr. Byrd, in a wheelchair, carried a small American flag and, again, wept.
A few days before, noting the rancor that surrounded proposals to revamp American health care, Mr. Kennedy’s great cause, Mr. Byrd said his death was an occasion to put the discord aside. “Let us stop the shouting and name calling and have a civilized debate on health care reform, which I hope, when legislation has been signed into law, will bear his name,” he said.
In an interview in 2005, when asked what he considered his proudest Senate achievement, Mr. Byrd said it was his efforts to bring federal money to West Virginia. “I’m proud I gave hope to my people,” he said.
That success also attracted criticism. Citizens Against Government Waste, a nonpartisan watchdog group, regularly crowned him the “king of pork,” citing projects like the Robert C. Byrd Highway, two Robert C. Byrd federal buildings, the Robert C. Byrd Freeway, the Robert C. Byrd Center for Hospitality and Tourism, the Robert C. Byrd Drive and the Robert C. Byrd Hardwood Technologies Center.
West Virginians were grateful for the help. Senator John D. Rockefeller IV, Democrat of West Virginia and the state’s junior senator since 1985, said Mr. Byrd had meant “everything, everything” to the state. Mr. Byrd knew, he said, that “before you can make life better, you have to have a road to get in there, and you have to have a sewerage system and all those things, and he has done that for most of the state.”
Bob Wise, a Democrat who was West Virginia’s governor from 2001 to 2005, once said that what Mr. Byrd had done for education — “the emphasis on reading and literacy” — mattered even more than roads.
“It’s not only what Senator Byrd brought directly,” Mr. Wise said, “but the example he has lived throughout his life, about education being the way up.”
Mr. Byrd was born Cornelius Calvin Sale Jr. on Nov. 20, 1917, in North Wilkesboro, N.C. His mother died the next year in the influenza epidemic, but before she did, she asked his father to give him to a sister and brother-in-law. They adopted him and renamed him Robert Carlyle Byrd, then moved to rural West Virginia.
As a boy, living on a small farm, he helped slaughter hogs, learned to play the fiddle and became a prize-winning Sunday school student after the manager of the local coal company store gave him two pairs of socks so he could attend without embarrassment.
In 1937, Mr. Byrd married Erma Ora James, his high school sweetheart. She died in 2006, after 68 years of marriage. Mr. Byrd is survived by their two daughters, Mona Fatemi of McLean, Va., and Marjorie Moore of Leesburg, Va.; five grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren.
During World War II, Mr. Byrd worked as a welder, building cargo ships in Baltimore and Tampa, Fla. When the war ended, in 1945, he returned to Crab Orchard, W.Va., to work in a supermarket. He taught Sunday school and an adult Bible class.
Encouraged to enter politics by the Klan’s grand dragon, he ran successfully for the state’s House of Delegates in 1946 and again in 1948. In 1950, he was elected to the State Senate, and two years later, to Congress. During his campaign, he played the fiddle at one rural stop after another.
Soon after arriving in Washington, he enrolled in night law school classes, despite his lack of a bachelor’s degree. It took him 10 years, but he earned a law degree, cum laude, from American University in 1963. President John F. Kennedy presented his diploma.
In the House, he spoke up for the coal industry, pushed for highway and military money and, in 1955, traveled around the world as a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee.
He waged his first race for the United States Senate in 1958, and he won easily: the nation was in a recession, and West Virginia was a largely Democratic state. So began the first of his nine Senate terms.
With the Democrats gaining 13 seats in that election, spots opened up on several major committees, and Lyndon B. Johnson, the majority leader, gave quite a few to freshmen. On Jan. 14, 1959, Mr. Byrd was put on the Appropriations Committee, and he promptly got to work winning money for West Virginia projects.
In 1960, he backed Johnson for president and campaigned against John F. Kennedy in the West Virginia primary. Kennedy’s forces retaliated by bringing up Mr. Byrd’s Klan connection. Kennedy won the primary. That summer, Mr. Byrd voted for the 1960 Civil Rights Act, a Johnson measure that allowed federal judges to appoint referees to register voters after discrimination had been proved in court.
But in 1964, with Johnson now president and no longer a force in the Senate, Mr. Byrd sided with Senator Richard B. Russell Jr. of Georgia, the leader of Southern Democrats, and filibustered against the much stronger civil rights bill of that year, a measure that would open restaurants and hotels to blacks, ban discrimination in employment and enable the Justice Department to register black voters in Deep South states. Mr. Byrd also opposed the 1965 Voting Rights Act and its renewal in 1970, which he considered infringements on states’ rights.
Over the next few years, he supported the war in Vietnam and attacked the Supreme Court over decisions prohibiting organized school prayer and ensuring rights for people suspected of committing crimes. As chairman of the appropriations subcommittee on the District of Columbia, he sought to curb welfare cheating and find more money for Washington schools. He also became devoted to learning the customs, rules and precedents of the Senate.
In 1967 he was elected secretary of the Senate Democratic Conference, the No. 3 leadership position. He made the job important by spending almost all day on the Senate floor, scheduling votes to accommodate fellow senators and keeping track of favors asked and delivered. In essence, he was doing the job of the Democratic whip, which Senator Russell B. Long of Louisiana, the elected whip, was neglecting.
But in 1969, Mr. Byrd was taken by surprise. With the encouragement of Senator Mike Mansfield of Montana, who was the majority leader, Senator Kennedy ran against Mr. Long for the job that Mr. Byrd had patiently been awaiting.
“To my astonishment,” Mr. Byrd said in a 1993 interview, “Ted Kennedy came in, leaped over me and ran for the office of whip and defeated Russell Long.”
For the next two years, Mr. Kennedy did not pay much more attention to details than Mr. Long had, and Mr. Byrd continued to do much of the whip’s work. He described their relationship as “enmity.” In 1971 he set out to line up the votes to surprise Mr. Kennedy and oust him. With a deathbed proxy from Mr. Russell, he won 31 to 24.
Six years later, in January 1977, Mr. Byrd was elected majority leader, replacing Mr. Mansfield, who had retired.
Among the toughest legislation Congress handled soon afterward was the pair of treaties that would shift control of the Panama Canal and the Canal Zone to Panama from the United States.
Mr. Byrd had originally opposed a turnover. But he came to support it after military leaders convinced him that rejection of the treaties would foster unrest in Panama, and that their passage would best ensure uninterrupted use of the canal.
Mr. Byrd organized seminars to educate senators about the issue and worked closely with Howard H. Baker Jr., the Republican leader. Despite pressure from conservative organizations and overwhelmingly negative constituent mail, he ultimately won ratification of both treaties in 1978 by separate votes of 68 to 32 — the required two-thirds majority of 67, plus a vote to spare.
In his autobiography, Mr. Byrd reflected that “the victory meant that I had surmounted my ‘technician’ image as a leader who merely ‘made the Senate trains run on time,’ a Washington cliché that rankled me most.”
The canal issue cost the Democrats enough seats in the next two elections to give the Republicans a majority and relegate Mr. Byrd to minority leader from 1981 to 1987.
He was never a particularly partisan Democrat. President Richard M. Nixon briefly considered him for a Supreme Court appointment. Mr. Dole recalled an occasion when Mr. Byrd gave him advice on a difficult parliamentary question; the help enabled Mr. Dole to overcome Mr. Byrd on a particular bill.
Mr. Byrd returned to the post of majority leader in 1987, but after the 1988 elections, Senate Democrats wanted to replace him with someone they thought would make a better spokesman on television. They chose Senator George J. Mitchell of Maine.
Mr. Byrd was given his dream job, as the Appropriations Committee chairman. In June 1990, he traveled to Clarksburg, WestVirginia, to announce a $4 million grant to study whether to move the F.B.I.’s identification division there. But he had bigger plans as well.
“I hope to become West Virginia’s billion-dollar industry,” Mr. Byrd told reporters.
“By the time this six-year term of mine is up” in 1995, he went on, “I will have added at least a billion dollars. That’s my goal for West Virginia.”
In 1991, he had already reached that goal, four years early, according to a tally by The Associated Press.
Mr. Byrd wrote four books. He compiled speeches about the Senate into a four-volume history of the institution, published from 1989 to 1994. His speeches about the Roman Senate, intended to steel his colleagues against demands for a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution and a line-item veto for the president, were published in 1995.
Mr. Byrd always carried a copy of the Constitution. He said his second-proudest accomplishment was legislation requiring every educational institution receiving federal aid to observe the anniversary of the signing of the Constitution on Sept. 17 by teaching students about it.
He had an abiding concern for the traditions and dignity of the Senate. When the Senate was struggling to agree on rules for the impeachment trial of Mr. Clinton in 1999, Mr. Byrd warned that the Senate itself was also on trial.
“The White House has sullied itself,” he said, “and the House has fallen into a black pit of partisanship and self-indulgence. The Senate is teetering on the brink of that same black pit.”
When, in 2005, Republicans considered banning the filibuster on judicial nominations, he warned that such an action would change the “nature of the Senate by destroying the right of free speech it has enjoyed since its creation.”
In “Losing America,” he wrote that the Senate without the filibuster “will no longer be a body of equals.”
“It will, instead, have become a body of toads,” he wrote, “hopping up and down and over one another to please the imperious countenance of an all-powerful president.”
He denounced the 2002 Congressional resolution authorizing Mr. Bush to make war on Iraq. It “amounted to a complete evisceration of the Congressional prerogative to declare war,” he wrote in “Losing America,” “and an outrageous abdication of responsibility to hand such unfettered discretion to this callow and reckless president.”
Mr. Byrd feared for the legislative branch. In a 1994 interview celebrating the defeat of a proposed balanced-budget amendment, he said, “The basic power which is probably more fundamental than any other power in the Constitution is the power of the purse.”
“That power of the purse belongs to the people,” Mr. Byrd said. “And that is where it is vested. It is vested in the branch that represents the people, elected by the people.”