Sen. Robert C. Byrd, the longest-serving senator in history, stepped down as chairman of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee on Friday after weeks of speculation that his party’s leadership was pressuring the 90-year-old West Virginia Democrat to resign the post.
Mr. Byrd said it was time for new leadership in the Senate’s largest committee, which controls more than $1 trillion in federal agencies’ budgets.
“I have learned that nothing is quite so permanent as change. It is simply a part of living and should not be feared,” he said. “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.”
As chairman he helped steer huge sums of federal dollars to West Virginia, one of the country’s poorest states, earning him the nickname “King of Pork” by the taxpayer watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste.
Mr. Byrd will remain as chairman of the subcommittee that writes the budget for the Department of Homeland Security.
The West Virginia icon is scheduled to be replaced by another of the Senate’s most senior Democrats - Daniel K. Inouye of Hawaii, who is 84 and has served in the Senate since 1963.
Mr. Inouye, who is the second-ranking Democrat in the Appropriations Committee, said he was humbled by Mr. Byrd’s recommendation that he succeed him as chairman.
“I hope that I am sufficiently prepared to succeed my mentor, who has assisted and guided me over the past 30 years, and in particular, during the years that he has led this important panel with distinction,” Mr. Inouye said.
Mr. Byrd, who was re-elected in 2006 for a ninth six-year term, is legendary for his fiery floor speeches and emotional outbursts. But he has become increasingly frail in recent years, particularly since the 2006 death of Erma, his wife of almost 69 years. He spent several days at Walter Reed Army Medical Center last winter after he fell at home, and was hospitalized in the spring due to a reaction to antibiotics.
Mr. Byrd said the decision to walk away from his chairmanship was his alone.
“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,” he said.
But rumors had persisted for weeks on Capitol Hill that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, was pressuring Mr. Byrd to step down after Tuesday’s elections because of age and health concerns.
A top Senate Democratic aide said the speculation that Mr. Reid had asked Mr. Byrd to step down was “100 percent not true.”
“We were caught by surprise by this as well,” the aide said.
Mr. Reid said Friday he had accepted Mr. Byrd’s decision to resign his chairmanship “with tremendous gratitude for his outstanding tenure as chairman.”