Feisty Byrd Looks Like a Candidate

Posted March 16, 2005 at 6:47pm

Standing before 500 cheering Democratic activists Wednesday, Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) began to extend his right hand to acknowledge the applause before quickly jerking it back toward his chest.

In a quick movement, Byrd’s hand appeared again, this time hoisting a pocket copy of the Constitution into the air, much in the same way volunteers wave a candidate’s signs on street corners in the closing days of a campaign.

The gesture prompted the already fevered audience of MoveOn.org supporters to cheer even louder, and a beaming Byrd began an energetic speech about his opposition to a Republican proposal to change the rules of the Senate.

For Byrd, who is nearing the end of his eighth term, the pocket Constitution is likely to be his campaign sign over the next two years, should he seek re-election. But the question remains, will Byrd seek a ninth term?

The octogenarian said he is “inclined to,” but is quick to add that he is still weighing his options.

Still, despite growing Republican confidence in a state that went for President Bush in both 2000 and 2004, all signs indicate that Byrd is taking the necessary steps to ramp up for another campaign.

The West Virginian has scheduled a fundraiser next month in Washington, D.C., and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) called on Democrats last week to begin padding Byrd’s war chest, which showed only a modest $93,000 at the close of the most recent reporting period.

And the West Virginian — whose larger-than-life figure in his home state has kept serious challenges at bay for generations — said in an interview after the rally that he is prepared for a negative campaign.

“The opposition will do its best to distort my words,” Byrd said. “Distort my votes. But the record is there and the people of West Virginia know me. I am a product that they know what they are getting.”

What West Virginians have got from Byrd over the years is lots of federal dollars for the construction of new roads, buildings and other public works. As the former chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee and now its ranking Democrat, Byrd’s prowess at steering federal monies back home is legendary on Capitol Hill. And back home, appreciation for those projects should help him at the polls.

“The people are not going to forget,” he said.

But Republicans argue that West Virginians will not overlook Byrd’s liberalism and his unabashed criticism of Bush and the Republican Congress.

In particular, the GOP is touting a recent speech Byrd delivered from the Senate floor about the so-called nuclear option. Republicans howled when Byrd referenced Adolf Hitler’s rise to power during an attack on the GOP’s possible rules change to prevent a filibuster on judicial nominees.

Byrd scoffed at the notion he was describing his GOP colleagues as Nazis.

“That was the critics trying to make something out of nothing,” Byrd said in the interview. “That was history. I was quoting a historian.”

In his speech to the Democratic activists Wednesday, Byrd did not make note of Hitler, but he was equally passionate about preventing Republican Senators from changing the rules.

“Your freedom of speech is in jeopardy,” he bellowed from the podium. “Don’t do it. We can’t let them do it.”

The crowd hung on his every word, and at times responded to him on cue.

A few hours after Byrd’s appearance at the MoveOn.org rally, Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said he “hoped [Republicans] get a copy of [Byrd’s] speech.

“He is helping us with the American people and solidifying our own people,” Lott said.

The Mississippi Senator then chastised Byrd for his earlier remarks on the Senate floor.

“He goes on the floor and basically calls us Nazis and fascists because we want a majority vote, because we want to reinstate what was the practice for 200 years,” Lott said. “Then he goes on down to talk to MoveOn.org, one of the most irresponsible, left-wing Democratic extremist groups in the country now. This is good. This is helping us.”

Senate Republican Conference Chairman Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) predicted that Byrd’s “record will be under a tremendous amount of scrutiny here in the next couple of years.”

For 2006, Republicans will probably need to find a candidate with some stature if they hope to oust Byrd. In West Virginia, the GOP has historically fared poorly in lower-level offices, so their bench is considered thin.

Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) appears to be the favorite of the GOP establishment.

“As far as running for the United States Senate, that is an option she has not ruled out,” said R.C. Hammond, Capito’s spokesperson. Hammond said Capito has “not set a timetable” as to when she would make a decision whether to run against Byrd.

The MoveOn.org rally featured several members of the Democratic leadership and one major liberal icon, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.). But it was Byrd who drew the most applause.

At times during his colleagues’ speeches, the 87-year-old himself could be heard yelling “yeah,” “hallelujah,” and “right” to show support for their stated goal of preventing the change in the filibuster rule.

Afterwards, during the interview, Byrd explained that he is so passionate about this issue because “this is possibly the most critical thing that I have faced in my 47 years here. It is absolutely critical to the continuation of the Senate as the foremost protector of the minority. I have never seen anything like this.”

As for his critics who suggest that it is time for him to retire, Byrd said they have the “right” to say so. But as for his ultimate decision, he notes it will come down to two things.

“I feel that as long as I can be an effective Senator, I want to serve the Untied States … and serve the state of West Virginia,” he said.

And Democratic leaders said they are prepared to stand behind him.

“It [has] already started,” said Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.).