Democrats May Push Byrd From Chairmanship

Robert Byrd has been in the United States Senate since 1959, well before I was born, and has paved over the state of West Virginia with federal highways and monuments to himself. Now, though, his colleagues are trying to push him aside.

Democrats May Push Byrd From Chairmanship Senate Dems are quietly exploring ways to replace venerable Robert Byrd as chairman of Appropriations Committee. Photo: AP A group of Senate Democrats has begun quietly exploring ways to replace the venerable Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) as chairman of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, believing he’s no longer physically up to the job, according to Democratic senators and leadership aides familiar with the discussions.

Under one scenario being circulated in Democratic circles, the 90-year-old Byrd would be named “chairman emeritus,” and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) would become “acting chairwoman” for the remainder of the 110th Congress.

Democratic insiders caution, though, that no decision has been made. But there is broad discontent among committee members over the way Byrd has run the panel this year and the resulting problems in completing work on the fiscal 2008 spending bills, leading some members to privately push for Byrd’s replacement as chairman.

His physical condition has been slowly deteriorating for years, and he cannot walk now without the assistance of aides. Byrd has difficultly running committee hearings, and he relies heavily on staffers for guidance. Still, he can deliver one of his legendary floor speeches on the sanctity of the Constitution and the importance of Congress in the operation of the U.S. government, even if he often repeats himself over and again.

No Democratic senators or leadership aides would speak publicly about the situation, preferring to comment only anonymously. A senior Democratic aide said replacing Byrd “has been discussed for the last couple of weeks,” although Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is not in favor of such a move.


But while the respect for Byrd may be genuine and widely held, there are clearly Democrats who want him out. A Senate Democrat who serves on the Appropriations Committee complained that the panel “has had no chairman this year.” And another Democrat on the panel said Byrd “is no longer up to the job. It’s sad, but it’s true.”

We endured the same thing in Strom Thurmond’s waning years. While it’s not as true as it once was, seniority means power in the Senate and the body has become a geritocracy, with six members over eighty and twenty-six over seventy. Another sixteen are over 65, putting 42 percent of the body past the standard retirement age. The key leadership positions and chairmanships are overwhelming from that group.

There’s not much that can be done about any of this, since voters seldom fail to re-elect these venerable old gentlemen if they continue putting themselves up. A mandatory retirement age would be not only legally dubious but arbitrary; most of the 70-somethings in the Senate are surely fit for the job. But it creates an embarrassing situation when they aren’t.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Richard Gardner says:

    However, Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) states she knows nothing about this,

    Sen. Patty Murray is denying a published report that she and other Democrats are looking to replace West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd as chairman of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee.

    The Politico newspaper reported Tuesday that under one scenario being considered, the 90-year-old Byrd would be named “chairman emeritus,” and Murray, D-Wash., would become “acting chairwoman” as soon as next month.

    The Washington, D.C.-based newspaper said some Democrats believe Byrd is no longer physically up to the job.

    Murray, a member of the Senate Democratic leadership, denied any plan to replace Byrd, adding that she has not been approached by any colleague with such a proposal.

    “As far as I’m concerned, there is no truth to this story,” Murray said Tuesday. “I will continue to work with Chairman Byrd and other members of leadership to pass spending bills that reflect the priorities of the American people.”

    Despite the denial this could be an interesting one to watch over the next month. I doubt Sen Murray would pass up on the opportunity to become Chairwoman.

  2. Bithead says:

    Look, let’s call this what it is.
    Byrd is a man whose party wants to move even farther left than he’s been infamous for doing, and they’ll find it hard indeed to do with him still in place,particularly after they’ve spent the last 20 years lionizing him.

  3. vnjagvet says:

    A quick reaction:

    This is a trial balloon that is not going to happen. Byrd is at least as sharp as centenarian Thurman was, and managed to retain his chairmanship.

  4. DavidL says:

    If the elected senator from West Virgina, Bobby Byrd, is not running the Senate Finance Committee then just who is? Do have a representative republic form of goverment, or not.

    Don’t expect Dirty Harry Reid to take any action. Better to uphold the tradition and comity of the Senate thnn actually function to do the People’s business.

  5. Simon says:

    A mandatory retirement age would be … legally dubious….

    Right, it’d have to be done by Constitutional amendment – a statute or rule would fall afoul of Powell v. McCormack.

  6. Christopher says:

    Two things: First, democrats are racists and want to keep fellow former klansman racist Byrd in power as long as possible. Racists love other racists so why not? Plus, dems have done great at their goal of keeping the black population down, with Byrd playing a major role. How would it look getting rid of one of their longtime leaders?

    Secondly, Byrd is too feeble and decrepit to be effective. Much like the congressional democrats in this recent year of power. Why give up on their chairman?

  7. McGehee says:

    Knowing the GOP couldn’t get rid of Ted Stevens without authorizing a tactical nuclear strike on his office, Democrats are looking to embarrass them and maybe — just maybe — rid themselves of their own Jurassic Pork.

  8. floyd says:

    “Geriocracy” has a nice ring to it, but what do ya think of combining your term with McGehee’s to come up with “GERIATRIC PARK”
    Now, does conjure up images or WHAT??

  9. Don says:

    The next thing you know, they’ll be
    Liebermanizing him!