The Robert Byrd confirmation hearings
It is still early in the proceedings, but the Senate Judiciary Committee appears headed toward a unanimous vote to send Sen. Robert Byrd's nomination to St. Peter with a recommendation of swift confirmation.
The chairman, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), gave a cursory welcome on Monday to Elena Kagan, President Obama's nominee to the Supreme Court, before addressing the passing early Monday of the legendary lawmaker from West Virginia.
"He was the keeper of the Senate flame, the fiercest defender of the Senate's constitutional role and prerogatives," Leahy said. "I don't know how many times we saw Senator Byrd hold up the copy of the Constitution" he added, giving a demonstration with a pocket copy of his own.
Sen. Jeff Sessions (Ala.), the ranking Republican, admitted to a rare moment of agreement with the chairman. "I remember one day [Byrd] gave a speech," Sessions recalled, "about textbooks and their failure to distinguish between a republic and a democracy. He went on at some length demonstrating that and then called them 'touch-feely twaddle.'"
Having met Leahy's opening eulogy, Sessions raised him one. "I know you would join with me, Mr. Chairman, expressing our sympathy to Justice Ginsburg on the loss of her husband, also," he said, recalling the death on Sunday of Martin Ginsburg.
Leahy quickly corrected his oversight. "A wonderful man," he agreed.
The Byrd tributes continued, from Utah Republican Orrin Hatch ("a towering presence"), from California Democrat Dianne Feinstein ("a titan in the Senate"), and from Sens. Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.), Arlen Specter (D-Pa.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.)
This spontaneous celebration of the life of Byrd was unlikely to disappoint the nominee. Indeed, Elena Kagan has been perhaps the luckiest nominee to the high court in recent history. Republican efforts to highlight controversies in her record were buried by the news about the oil spill in the Gulf. Plans to sharpen the attack last week were blunted by the news about Gen. Stanley McChrystal in Afghanistan. Finally, her confirmation hearing opened Monday, and lawmakers were talking about the news about Byrd and Ginsburg.
But there was nothing to be done about that. Kagan's confirmation is essentially a done deal, her qualifications so evident as to make her hearings boring. That story just couldn't compete with news from Afghanistan or the Gulf, or the death of the man who served longer than any other in the history of the Senate.
"I remember in the early years," Hatch reminisced about Byrd, "when I led the fight against labor law reform, he wasn't very happy with me, and frankly I wasn't very happy with him either. But in the end, I gained such tremendous respect for him and love."
Hatch turned to his second eulogy of the morning. "The Ginsburgs celebrated their 56th wedding anniversary just a few days ago -- not as long as the 68 years that Senator and Erma Byrd were married, before her death, but a good long time nonetheless," the senator said. "The Ginsburgs have been a model of dignity and grace, and Justice Ginsburg and her children will be in my prayers."
So where did these fond reminiscences leave the nominee, who sat silent at the witness table, hands on the table in front of her? Graham found a way to make a connection. Recalling his "worthy ally" Byrd, Graham noted that "all of us are choosing to judge him by his complete career" - and not, it was implied, by his early days when he was associated with the Klan. Graham, caught up in the moment, suggested this would be "a good example for all of us to follow" when viewing nominees.
Don't expect such high-minded feelings to hold when the questioning begins Tuesday morning.
| June 28, 2010; 2:50 PM ET
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