17,000 votes, nine terms, 51 years -- a career of superlatives and change.
With a copy of the U.S. Constitution in his coat pocket, Sen. Robert Byrd was as vital as ever in the last year of his life. Without his blessing, it's unlikely that Democrats would have been able to use the budget reconciliation procedure to pass its historical health care reform bill. And this week, Byrd's vote on financial regulatory reform was needed by the Democratic conference.
One of the last senators to establish long friendships with colleagues on the opposite side of the aisle, Byrd has said that his proudest moments in the body came when he stood against President Bush and the war in Iraq. It was unconscionable to Byrd that Bush would go to war without Congress's approval.
Byrd's evolution tracks the evolution of the Senate and the country; a member of the Ku Klux Klan in his youth, he eventually came to champion the cause of civil rights. An opponent of gay rights, he supported the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" in the last month of his life.
Born in extreme poverty in West Virginia, he never apologized for bringing home federal money for projects in his state. It is no exaggeration to say that hardly a town in the state doesn't bear some Robert C. Byrd center of some sort of another.
Adam Clymer's excellent obituary fills in the context.
Democratic Gov. Joe Manchin will appoint Byrd's successor. Given the time frame -- outside two and a half years before Byrd's term expired -- a special election will be held in November.
Democratic sources say they think that Nick Casey, the state Democratic party chair, had been quietly tapped (and approved) to be his fill-in/successor should a vacancy occur. Sen. Harry Reid and others have been consulted on this eventuality.
The only ambiguity here is when Manchin officially declares a "vacancy" in the seat; if he does so after July 3 somehow, then his hand-chosen replacement could serve through 2012.
If not, the successor serves a few months, and Republicans get the chance to enter another Senate race in 2010.