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Defiant Byrd, 89, Says He Will Continue To Serve

His hands shaking and voice muffled by a cough, Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), 89, defiantly declared today that he would continue to serve in the chamber indefinitely, possibly until his death, despite suffering from a tremor common to the elderly.

"I will continue to do this work until this old body just gives out and drops," he declared in a prepared floor speech. "Don't expect that to be any time soon."

The state of Byrd's health has become a topic of intense but whispered speculation among senators and staff this year, not merely because of his advanced age and noticeably frail condition, but because of the enormous power he continues to wield. Byrd, who first came to the Senate during the Eisenhower Administration, is chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, which oversees nearly $1 trillion in federal expenditures. And as the longest-serving senator of the majority party, Byrd is president pro tempore of the Senate -- which puts him in the line of presidential succession behind Vice President Cheney and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

But Byrd, who won re-election easily last November to his ninth term, declined to publicly address his failing health until an Associated Press report about his slowing condition landed on the front page of the Charleston Daily Mail, the most influential paper in his home state. That story was filed June 14 - almost a year to the day that Byrd surpassed the late Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) to become the longest serving senator in the history of the republic.

[Thanks for a reader for pointing out the Daily Mail is one of two papers in Charleston, with The Gazette being the larger paper.]

"The news stories in recent weeks [have] pointed out the shocking discovery, yes, shocking discovery that I am growing older. Did you get that? Shocking discovery that I am growing older," Byrd said in a mocking tone to a largely empty Senate floor, prompting laughter from the galleries.

As he spoke, his hand holding a microphone trembled wildly, and he needed help from an aide in getting through the pages of his floor speech. He appeared to cut short his speech after a coughing spasm.

As Capitol Briefing noted in the spring, Byrd has begun surrendering some of his duties. During the critical considerations of the supplemental spending bill for Iraq war, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash) led the conference committee with House appropriators and managed the bill while it was on the floor on multiple occasions.

For major pieces of legislation passed -- such as the supplemental bill that initially included a timeline for U.S troop withdrawal from Iraq -- Democratic leaders held "enrollment" ceremonies in which the legislation was formally signed and sent to President Bush. While the cameras have been on hand to document the "event, the media has not been present when Byrd signed the bills in private.

And on many mornings, such as today, Byrd does not open the Senate chamber as is the custom of the president pro tempore. (His predecessor in that post, Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), 83, took great pride in gaveling the chamber in almost every morning.)

In 1998, after turning 96, Thurmond surrendered his post as chairman of the Armed Services Committee.

Byrd made clear today he has no intention of stepping aside any time soon, crediting his slowed demeanor with giving junior committee members such as Murray "the opportunity to play a larger role."

"Why shouldn't these fine senators in their 50s through their 80s get to spread their wings while the old wise bird watches," he asked.

If Byrd does step aside as committee chairmen, the domino effect in the chamber would be far and wide. Next in line to take over is another octogenarian -- Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), 83, who already chairs the critically important Defense subcommittee on the panel and could just pass on the opportunity to take the gavel on the full committee.

Such a scenario would then give Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), 67, the opportunity to become Appropriations chairman, a ripe opportunity that would be almost impossible to pass up but would also require him to give up his gavel as Judiciary chairman while that panel conducts the high-profile investigation of the Justice Department's dismissal of nine U.S. attorneys last year.

Leahy taking over Appropriations would likely lead to Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.), 72, becoming Judiciary chairman because the other two Democrats more senior than Kohl on Judiciary - Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), 75, and Joseph Biden (D-Del.), 64 -- already chair the Labor and Foreign Relations committees, respectively.

For now, Byrd has no intention of letting that scenario unfold. Here are a few other highlights from his stem-winder:

• "I like to think that I still have a few things left on my to-do list. I also like to think that some day our rapidly aging society will get over its fear and its denial of aging. We better get over it quickly."
• "The Senate is not exactly full of spring chickens. You better believe it. It is not supposed to be. The Senate was designed to give age and experience a chance to flourish."
• "My only adversity, my only adversity is age. It is not a barb at my usefulness as a senator. I still look out for West Virginia. I still zealously guard the welfare of this nation and its constitution. And I still work every day to move the business of this nation forward to end this reckless adventure in Iraq and to protect, to preserve and to defend the constitution of the United States against all those who would reshape it to suit a partisan agenda."

VIDEO | Sen. Byrd Responds to Critics of His Age

By Paul Kane  |  June 28, 2007; 4:00 PM ET
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