- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 31, 2003


Between them, Democrat Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia and Republican Ted Stevens of Alaska have spent 80 years in the Senate, long ago forging a deferential bond that survived the Vietnam War, Watergate, an impeachment and record budget deficits.

But the often warm friendship between two of the most cantankerous and perhaps most feared power brokers in Washington has been frayed over the war in Iraq. Their solicitous exaltations of one another have been replaced by uncharacteristically gruff clashes in recent months.

“I don’t know,” Mr. Stevens, who turned 80 last month, said about his relationship with Mr. Byrd. “We’ll just have to see what happens now.”

Mr. Byrd, who turned 86 two days later, said his affection for Mr. Stevens is “too deep” to be hurt by one issue. But he added, “I think of this as I think of life, one day at a time, one issue at a time.”

Mr. Byrd’s 45 years in the Senate make him the second longest serving of the 1,875 senators in history, behind only the 47 years of the late Sen. Strom Thurmond, South Carolina Republican. Mr. Stevens’ 35 years rank him 20th.

The two men are linked by more than longevity.

They sit elbow to elbow on the Senate Appropriations Committee, where Mr. Stevens is chairman and Mr. Byrd the top Democrat and longtime chairman when his party had the majority. That panel is one of Congress’ most crucial, responsible for 13 must-pass spending bills every year that control the purses of every federal agency and one-third of the $2.2 trillion federal budget.

It’s also one of Congress’ most rewarding committees for lawmakers, who use it to win roads, dams and other projects for the folks back home. Almost in a class by themselves, Mr. Byrd and Mr. Stevens have used their perches over the years to steer vast federal sums to their economically fragile states.

It’s a committee that demands bipartisanship to function. The two senators know that better than anyone else — as they demonstrated just before Congress recessed for Thanksgiving, when they helped craft a massive $373 billion package combining seven overdue spending bills.

The House has passed the measure, and the Senate will deal with it when the next session of Congress starts Jan. 20. Its fate is uncertain, not because of any bad feelings between Mr. Stevens and Mr. Byrd but because of fights over provisions the Bush administration won on overtime pay, media ownership, meat labeling and other issues.

Mr. Stevens still recalls the concern Mr. Byrd showed when Mr. Stevens’ first wife was killed in a 1978 plane crash, an accident that Mr. Stevens survived.

Now that Mr. Byrd’s wife, Erma, has health problems, “I don’t think a day goes by when I don’t ask him” about her, Mr. Stevens said.

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