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“There is no question that Senator Byrd’s decision was eased by the knowledge that the gavel will continue to be in such capable hands” as Mr. Inouye’s, the majority leader said. “I know I speak for all of my colleagues when I say that we look forward to Senator Byrd’s continued leadership in the 111th Congress.”

Appropriations Committee member Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, praised Mr. Byrd for his service to the committee, West Virginia and the nation.

“It has been an honor to serve on the Appropriations Committee with him,” she said. “As Senator Byrd so eloquently stated in his resignation from the chairmanship … this is a moment of great change in our nation’s history.”

Mr. Byrd is a former Senate majority leader and has cast more than 18,000 Senate votes, by far the chamber’s record.

He will retain his post as president pro tempore of the Senate, a mostly ceremonial position but one that puts him third in line of presidential succession, behind the vice president and the speaker of the House.

Mr. Byrd grew up in a coal mining region of southern West Virginia and held several modest jobs, including grocery-store clerk and butcher, before he won a seat in the West Virginia House of Delegates in 1946.

He was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1958 as a conservative Democrat, and participated in an unsuccessful filibuster of the 1964 Civil Rights Act - a move that Mr. Byrd later called, along with his Ku Klux Klan membership, among the biggest mistakes of his life.

In later years he took on more liberal positions. He was an early opponent of the Iraq war when many of his Democratic colleagues supported the campaign, and he supported Sen. Barack Obama is his successful bid for the White House.