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.
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.