Sen. Robert Byrd, longest-serving member of Congress, dies at 92

In this April 30, 2008 file photo, Senate President Pro Tem Sen. Robert Byrd., West Virginia Democrat, bangs the gavel on Capitol Hill in Washington, prior to outgoing Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern's address to a joint meeting of Congress. Mr. Byrd a fiery orator versed in the classics and a hard-charging power broker who steered billions of federal dollars to the state of his Depression-era upbringing, died Monday, June 28, 2010 (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)In this April 30, 2008 file photo, Senate President Pro Tem Sen. Robert Byrd., West Virginia Democrat, bangs the gavel on Capitol Hill in Washington, prior to outgoing Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern’s address to a joint meeting of Congress. Mr. Byrd a fiery orator versed in the classics and a hard-charging power broker who steered billions of federal dollars to the state of his Depression-era upbringing, died Monday, June 28, 2010 (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

Sen. Robert C. Byrd, the longest-serving member of Congress in history, known for his rhetorical flourish, his devotion to his home state of West Virginia and his fierce defense of the legislative branch’s constitutional primacy in American government, died Monday morning at the age of 92.

A spokesman for his Senate office said Mr. Byrd died at 3 a.m. at Inova Fairfax Hospital. He had been admitted last week for what doctors thought was het exhaustion and dehydration, but doctors said other conditions developed and his office announced Sunday he was “seriously ill.”

“We will remember him for his fighter’s spirit, his abiding faith, and for the many times he recalled the Senate to its purposes. Generations of Americans will read the masterful history of the Senate he leaves behind, and they will also read about the remarkable life of Robert Carlyle Byrd,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican.

During his nearly six decades in Congress, including years six in the House and more than 50 in the Senate, Mr. Byrd took part in the bitter fights over civil rights, first as an opponent and later a supporter, and fought the key battles over budgets and spending that dominated much of the 1980s and 1990s. He saw fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, and in the last decade had been one of the key voices against the war in Iraq.

For most of that time, until his frailty confined him to a wheel chair and he began to miss votes regularly, Mr. Byrd was a dominant figure in the Senate, policing its institutional prerogatives and procedures against encroachments large and small, even down to the use of cell phones and other electronic devices in the Senate chamber. At one time, a glare from the senator in his seat, right on the aisle, was enough to silence the chamber.

But as much as anything Mr. Byrd will be remembered for his mastery of Congress’s power of the purse, and he reveled in being called the “pork king.”

As the long-time top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, a post he only relinquished at the beginning of this Congress, taxpayer watchdogs estimate he secured more than $3 billion in earmarked spending for West Virginia — probably an all-time record.

As of this January he had cast 18,611 votes in the Senate, or 2,000 more than anyone else in history.

Despite his legendary attachment to West Virginia, Mr. Byrd was actually born in North Carolina and his given name was Cornelius Calvin Sale Jr. But his mother died in the 1918 global flu pandemic and his father dispersed the family among his mother’s relatives.

He was raised in West Virginia by an aunt and uncle, and re-christened Robert Carlyle Byrd.

Before he was elected to Congress in 1952, Mr. Byrd served in both houses of the West Virginia legislature.

Mr. Byrd’s health declined more rapidly following the March 2006 death of his wife, Erma. They were married 68 years and had been childhood sweethearts.

They were barely out of Mark Twain High School —  where he was valedictorian —  when they got married in 1937, holding the wedding ceremony after he got off work from the local butcher shop in Crab Orchard, W.Va.

They were too poor for a honeymoon, so they celebrated at a Saturday night square dance before the new groom returned to the meat counter at a coal mining camp for work Monday morning.

As a young member of Congress, Mr. Byrd put himself through law school despite not having graduated from college. 

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