- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 24, 2002

If the Senate completes work this week on a bill to create a new Department of Homeland Security, it will also lower the curtain on a rare spectacle: the unofficial filibuster of Sen. Robert C. Byrd.
Mr. Byrd, the 84-year-old West Virginia Democrat, has filled the void of partisan gridlock on the Senate floor for three weeks with folksy speeches, recitations of poetry and stern rebukes to his colleagues about senatorial courtesy.
"Standing up for the Constitution is a lonely vigil these days," Mr. Byrd said in an interview. "All that matters today is politics. When you talk about the Constitution, the eyes of Washington glaze over."
Mr. Byrd has taken his stand, which is due for a showdown vote today that he expects to lose, in a protracted dispute with the White House over congressional oversight of the new department.
"We have an administration that's very secretive," he said. "I don't trust this administration."
The Appropriations Committee chairman has also criticized his fellow lawmakers for trying to approve the bill too quickly.
"Partisan politics is taking over here, lock, stock and barrel," Mr. Byrd said. "It isn't a fight for principles here anymore. It's, 'Damn the Constitution, full speed ahead.'"
While many colleagues admire Mr. Byrd's stamina and determination, his performance is wearing thin with others.
"I don't think it's very appropriate," said Sen. Craig Thomas, Wyoming Republican. "It's a little bit obstructionist to do that. We're clearly short on time. He ought to express his opinions, and we ought to vote. He's entitled to his own view, but I'm not sure he's entitled to go on forever."
So engrossed was Mr. Byrd in his speech-making one recent night that he caused Assistant Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada to miss dinner with his wife on the couple's 43rd wedding anniversary.
"I am sorry I have detained him on his wedding anniversary," Mr. Byrd said after holding the floor uninterrupted for nearly 31/2 hours. "I wish the senator would have let me know that a little earlier."
Mr. Reid replied, "I was looking for an opportunity."
The longest Senate speech on record occurred in 1957, when Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina spoke uninterrupted for 24 hours and 18 minutes to filibuster the Civil Rights Act of 1957. Mr. Thurmond, still serving in the Senate, will turn 100 on Dec. 5.
Mr. Byrd wants Senate confirmation for the president's homeland security adviser and agency chiefs, something the White House is resisting. His opposition to the homeland security bill is not a true filibuster in that he has not held the floor continuously. The Senate also has considered an appropriations bill.
But with the Senate unable thus far to get the 60 votes needed to end debate on homeland security, Mr. Byrd's long hours on the floor are a throwback to another era.
"It's a filibuster, except in name," said Marshall Wittman, congressional analyst at the Hudson Institute in Washington. "This is as close as we get to it. The Senate has come to a halt for all intents and purposes."
Mr. Byrd has read aloud entire magazine articles, recited the roll of senators who served decades ago, even reached back to 14th-century England for a lecture on the origins of the parliamentary term "whip." Viewers on C-SPAN have sent Mr. Byrd bouquets with notes of encouragement. Some Senate staffers have grumbled at the long hours.
And his colleagues on at least one occasion have called a halt to his performance because the only other senator in the Capitol on a Friday afternoon wanted to go home. Without a senator in the chair as presiding officer, Mr. Byrd could no longer speak on the floor, a prospect he found "dreadful."
"What has become of the Senate?" Mr. Byrd asked of the nearly empty chamber. "The greatest deliberative body, we hear so often, a body in which a senator can stand on his or her feet and speak as long as those feet can carry that senator. I have been a senator a long time, 44 years come next January 3. Never have I had it put to me that we will have no more senators available to preside."
During this fight, Mr. Byrd's wife of 65 years, Erma, has undergone an emergency appendectomy. On the evening of the exchange on the floor with Mr. Reid, Mr. Byrd regretted aloud that he had probably missed visiting hours at the hospital to see his wife.
"She understands what I'm fighting for," he said. "She's just as dedicated to it as I am."


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