I’m Elizabeth Wynne Johnson of Capitol News Connection.
This Week in Congress…
In his final years, his appearances at the Capitol grew increasingly rare. But each time he arrived, a frail Senator Robert C. Byrd never failed to croak out a certain familiar phrase – part greeting, part command.
This week, the United States Senate would “make way for liberty!”… one last time.
The story of Byrd is complicated, contradictory, and long. When then-Senator Barack Obama greeted a crowd in West Virginia back in early 2008, he told a story about being the new kid in the chamber:
OBAMA: There was only one uniform piece of advice: when you talk to every single Senator in the Democratic caucus, they said, “The first thing you need to do is sit down and visit with Senator Byrd.”
In many ways the long story had come full-circle. The Southerner who joined the Ku Klux Klan and opposed the Civil Rights Act…would go on to support his Senate colleague Barack Obama for President.
In September of 2009, Byrd spoke from the Senate floor not far from a desk draped in a simple black cloth.
BYRD: Ted Kennedy and I were friends. Yet we were the oddest of odd couples. He was the scion of a wealthy and storied family. I am a coal miner’s son.
This week, it was the coal miner’s son whose desk sat unoccupied and shrouded. Senate Majority Leader Reid spoke of Byrd’s abiding and unmatched mastery of all things Senate. Its history. Its arcane procedures. Its place in a democracy.
REID: America’s lost its strongest defender of its most precious traditions.
FEINGOLD: Nobody had a clearer sense of the roles and prerogatives of Congress and the Constitution.
Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold.
FEINGOLD: In particular, he was the leading voice for making sure that we tried to keep our powers over questions about when troops go to War.