Sen. Robert Byrd, the longest-serving senator in history, is stepping down from his cherished post as chairman of the Appropriations Committee.
Byrd, 90, has become increasingly frail in recent years, and the move didn't come as a surprise. The West Virginia Democrat is a Senate icon and a legend in his own state, where he's single-handedly responsible for directing huge sums of federal largess for roads, universities and economic development projects. It was a perk of his powerful perch as chairman or top minority member of the panel for the past two decades.
Before that, he was the Senate's Democratic leader for 12 years.
Byrd said Friday that he made the decision voluntarily, deciding it's time for new leadership on the committee, which is among the most important in Congress for its control over more than $1trillion in federal agencies' budgets.
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“A new day has dawned in Washington, and that is a good thing. For my part, I believe that it is time for a new day at the top of the Senate Appropriations Committee,” Byrd said in a statement. He said he would remain as chairman of the subcommittee that writes the budget for the Department of Homeland Security.
Byrd will be replaced by Hawaii Democrat Daniel Inouye, 84, who's served in the Senate since 1963 and also has a reputation for shipping federal dollars back to his state. Inouye would take over in January when the new Congress convenes.
While the decision was made by Byrd, it came after a monthslong whispering campaign by some of his Senate colleagues and their staff aides in hopes of easing him out. Byrd withstood the pressure earlier this year, but it resumed in recent days.
Byrd did not make reference to the pressure in his statement, though he had criticized Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., over an account in Politico.com that cited anonymous sources as saying Reid was seeking to ease Byrd out of his chairmanship.
“I want to stress that this is a decision I made only after much personal soul-searching, and after being sure of the substantial Democratic pickup of seats in the Senate,” Byrd said. “I am now confident that stepping aside as chairman will not adversely impact my home state of West Virginia.”
Byrd has become significantly more frail – and sometimes prone to emotional outbursts – since Erma, his wife of almost 69 years, died two years ago. He has taken to a wheelchair and reads his speeches.
He remains the Senate's president pro tempore, a largely symbolic post reserved for the longest-serving member of the majority party.
It puts him third in the line of presidential succession after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.