The Man Who Runs the Senate

Robert Byrd, a little-known, fiddle-playing West Virginian, is the Senate’s Democratic whip, probably its next majority leader, and just possibly a favorite son at the 1976 Democratic Convention. Says he: “I believe that a big man can make a small job important.” Some of his colleagues think Byrd also proves the converse: that big job can help a small man to grow.

“Bobby Byrd is a member of the early morning health club,” says the master of ceremonies. “Every morning, early, he gets up, calls Mike Mansfield, and asks him, ‘How’s your health?’”

The occasion is a luncheon “roasting” in honor Robert Carlyle Byrd, fifty-seven, junior senator from West Virginia, and the Democratic whip of the Senate. It is given by the P. T. Barnum Tent of the Circus Saints & Sinners Club of America—one those slick and seamy Washington events where early everyone is called a “VIP,” the food is inedible, and the true aficionados arrive early to catch a striptease show over pre-lunch cocktails before the more worldly political hoopla begins. Byrd, the fall guy for the day, does not ordinarily travel in these hell-raising stag circles. He has a standing rule against attending downtown (off Capitol Hill) lunches and, in fact, proclaims himself to have “no time to socialize” at all; there is too much work for that. During twenty-three years in Washington, he has been to one football game (to crown the queen at half time), three baseball games (two of them in one day, a doubleheader), and one movie (he found it dull and left in the middle). He does watch television now and then, however, and once protested on the Senate floor when Gunsmoke, a favorite of his, was canceled.

But such are the responsibilities of power and acceptance on the national scene that Byrd has reluctantly agreed to be feted by the Saints & Sinners, to try to enjoy himself. Business on the Senate floor makes him unavoidably but conveniently late—it would hardly do if a statesman soon to speak at a national Baptist convention in Atlantic City appeared at a striptease. Once on hand, in a vast ballroom of the Shoreham Hotel, he sits through interminable introductions of other people, some very unfunny skits about moonshine liquor in “West By-God Virginia,” and a nightclub comic whose routine consists largely of imitating drunken men coming home late at night to their angry wives. Given his turn, Byrd allows as how the affair “is an honor for a country boy from the hills and hollows of West Virginia,” and he announces that the $500 charitable contribution in his name which is part of the day’s honors will go to the family of a police officer recently killed in Beckley, West Virginia. He surprises many people in the audience by telling a few off-color jokes himself. Then the usually dour Senator picks up his most reliable prop, his fiddle, and plunks out “Rye Whiskey,” complete with hoots and lyrics. That brings the house down, so he plays another, “Goin’ Up Cripple Creek,” which he dedicates to Mike Mansfield.

Byrd’s lusting after Mike Mansfield’s job as majority leader has become one of the central factors and favorite jokes of Democratic politics in the Senate. It is all “an exaggerated assumption,” says he; “I don’t have the consuming desire that people attribute to me”—although, “if the position were to open up, I would be compelled to run for it. I believe in advancing forward, moving up.” For the moment, Byrd insists, he is content to work under Mansfield, whom he names without a trace of hesitation as the colleague he most respects: “I admire his patience, his fairness and his honorableness, his integrity. ... This may appear to be self-serving, but that is how I feel.”

The relationship, by all accounts and appearances, works very well indeed. Mansfield plays the senior statesman, the venerated elder from Montana who makes broad policy pronouncements and worries about the future of the republic, while Byrd runs the Senate. Through a series of procedural changes he has initiated or supervised during the past few years, including a shortening of the Senate’s “morning hour” and of the speeches that may be given during it, Byrd controls the floor and, most of the time, who may have it and how it may be used. (One rule, which has other senators depending upon him and their aides detesting him, bans all senatorial staff from the chamber except when the man they work for is speaking.) He hammers out the “consent agreements” that keep the Senate running smoothly and efficiently—and, some argue, without its old charm and unpredictability—and he stays on the floor most of the time to be sure that the agreements are carried out. In a word, he is probably as powerful as anyone in the legislative branch, because of the access he controls and the shrewdness with which he uses it.

Most senators in both parties seem to feel that Byrd performs his tasks fairly, although he has been known to pull a few fast ones on liberal Democrats he considered to be advocating extreme positions and on Republicans he suspected of exploiting procedure for partisan advantage. During the recent debate over how to solve the disputed New Hampshire Senate election, for example, he said he would happily go along with a GOP suggestion to have the proceedings televised, but on the strict condition that the Republicans agree to set a time limit on the debate. The Republicans, who wanted to filibuster until the Democrats agreed to send the whole issue back to New Hampshire for a new election, quickly backed out.

“This never would have happened if Lyndon Johnson were still with us,” said an aide to one liberal Democratic senator when three conservative southern members of the party repeatedly foiled attempts by the Democratic leadership to invoke cloture and cut off debate on the dispute over how to settle the New Hampshire election deadlock this summer. Sooner or later Johnson would have forced a resolution of the issue, whether by discipline or backroom deal. Indeed, there could be no greater contrast between the Johnson style of Senate leadership—in which arms were twisted and egos bruised if necessary to work out compromises and pass critical legislation—and the soft, easygoing Mansfield style, which places full confidence in the ability of the Senate eventually to “work its will.” The question is how Byrd will handle the majority leadership if he succeeds to it. “There are advantages to both [the Mansfield and Johnson] styles,” he says diplomatically, “but if I had to choose between the two, I prefer the Mansfield approach. ... You have to remember, you have a different Senate now from when Mr. Johnson was the leader. He was in a position to utilize discipline more than it can be used now, and there is no longer a very cohesive southern bloc.” That cohesiveness was one of the key constants in Johnson’s formula for working his will on the Senate. One important difference is that the Democrats today have a far larger, more unwieldy, and somewhat less pragmatic majority in the Senate than in the Johnson days of the 1950s; a growing number of senators are inclined to vote their conscience on this matter or that. But many senators suspect that Byrd would try to assert greater authority over his troops than he is prepared to admit.

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Sanford J. Ungar, a prominent American author and journalist, was the magazine's Washington editor for many years. He is currently the president of Goucher College in Baltimore, Maryland.

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