Byrd’s Chairmanship Appears Safe

Posted June 3, 2008 at 6:28pm

Senate Democratic leaders are in no hurry to revisit whether ailing Appropriations Chairman Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) should step down from his powerful position, knowledgeable sources said Tuesday, and they are unlikely to address the issue prior to the November elections.

“There’s no appetite for it, and there’s no imminent reason for it to be considered,” one knowledgeable Senate Democratic source said of the leadership’s desire to keep the issue on the back burner despite the 90-year-old’s hospitalization Monday evening for a fever and minor infection.

Several Democratic sources said Tuesday that leaders likely would discuss Byrd’s fitness for the job in advance of the 111th Congress. The sources said that a new president and a potentially enhanced Democratic majority likely would require more robust legislative navigation skills than Byrd appears to be capable of now.

“There’s a decision that will have to be made for the next Congress,” said a well-placed Senate Democratic source.

Against the backdrop of Byrd’s nearly three-week hospital stay in late February and early March, the original impetus for Democratic leadership talks hinged on the desire to have a stronger hand on the panel to shepherd the Iraq War spending bill through the chamber. However, that measure is now on a fairly well-defined path to the president.

Additionally, Byrd is unlikely to face much committee work for the rest of the year, considering that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has made it clear he prefers to wait to negotiate the 12 regular spending bills with a new president next year rather than deal with a veto-prone President Bush.

With the Iraq supplemental out of the way, sources said, Senate Democratic leaders are wary of pushing Byrd again after the backlash they felt for broaching the subject of ousting a Senate legend from his perch.

Plus, Byrd has made an effort to be more engaged in the committee process, rather than leaving much of the work to surrogate Senators and his staff, as had been his practice in recent years.

Following the revelation in April that Senate leaders had privately discussed how to replace Byrd on Appropriations, Byrd made a round of calls to Senators in which he promised to be more vigorous. He made good on that pledge by holding both a full committee hearing and a markup on the Iraq measure. The markup was not blessed by Senate Democratic leaders, who had hoped to bypass the panel in order to smooth the bill’s passage, but Byrd insisted on the committee’s prerogatives.

Still, Byrd’s performance at both the markup and the hearing was mixed, and many interpreted his decision to hold that hearing in defiance of Senate Democratic leaders as an attempt to show that his age and health problems were not affecting his ability to serve as chairman.

His age was certainly on display at the markup, with his inability to hear other Senators appearing to hamper his efforts to follow the committee proceedings. Byrd also had trouble with the quick pace of the meeting and had to be reminded several times to call votes on amendments.

Byrd did help manage the supplemental on the Senate floor last month, though he also relied on stand-ins such as Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), who has often stepped into such duties for him.

Byrd’s office announced Tuesday that the Senator would remain hospitalized this week as doctors monitor his reaction to antibiotics that are being used to treat a mild infection. Byrd was taken to Inova Fairfax Hospital on Monday night after his caregiver noticed he had a fever.

“Byrd is alert, talking with staff and in good spirits and looks forward to getting back to work as soon as possible,” his spokesman Jesse Jacobs said in a statement.

A bad reaction to antibiotics earlier this year kept Byrd hospitalized for nearly two weeks. That stint followed a hospital stay for a fall Byrd suffered at his home in late February.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), painted a somber picture on Tuesday of Byrd’s health and his current hospitalization, though he noted he has not been permitted to speak to his home-state colleague.

“I do not think it is a good sign,” Rockefeller told reporters. “It’s serious every time he goes in. It seems that it is getting worse and worse each time.”

Tim Taylor contributed to this report.