- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 11, 2006

Sen. Robert C. Byrd today becomes the longest-serving senator in U.S. history, but the West Virginia Democrat isn’t dwelling on the milestone.

Mr. Byrd, 88, has spent 48 years in the Senate, and is running for an unprecedented ninth term to serve six more years.

“Honestly, I haven’t thought much about it,” Mr. Byrd said in a written question-and-answer session with The Washington Times. “My focus has never been on records. My focus is on the people and on the Constitution.”

Mr. Byrd thinks of himself as West Virginia’s “servant,” and notes that any record or honor is “really their record.”

Today, Mr. Byrd’s time in Congress will surpass that of the late Sen. Strom Thurmond, South Carolina Republican, who retired after 48 years in the Senate in 2003, at the age of 100.

Mr. Byrd previously served in the state legislature and in the House of Representatives, and was first elected to the Senate in 1958, before six of his Senate colleagues were born. He has served more than 17,000 days in that office, and has cast more than 17,000 votes.

Some, like his opposition to the Iraq war, he is proud of.

Others, such as his vote against the 1964 Civil Rights Act, he regrets, and he now says joining the Ku Klux Klan as a young man was a mistake.

Mr. Byrd, who grew up poor in West Virginia’s coal country and got a law degree attending night school as an adult, encourages young people to “never become discouraged.”

During his tenure, he has held most of the Senate’s leadership posts, including majority leader and head of the powerful Appropriations Committee.

He wields a cane as he moves around the Capitol, but still orates with passion and vigor. He often laments the bitter partisanship of today’s Senate.

“In this country, in this time, I hope that more of us will look to the common bonds that bind us as Americans rather than reach for the divisive words that split our nation apart,” said Mr. Byrd, who in 2004 wrote the book “Losing America: Confronting a Reckless and Arrogant Presidency.”

“No political party has a corner on the market of wisdom, and no proposal or policy is beyond the possibility of improvement,” he said.

Mr. Byrd, who carries a copy of the U.S. Constitution with him at all times, said he has not served “under” any president, and says he sometimes has to remind his colleagues the three branches of government are equal.

Former Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat, once called Mr. Byrd “a vital link to the patriots who created our democracy.”

This has been a tough year for Mr. Byrd, who this spring lost his wife and childhood sweetheart, Erma. He also faces a tougher-than-expected re-election bid in the fall.

Mrs. Byrd passed away after battling a long illness on March 25 at the age of 88. The couple this year would have celebrated their 69th wedding anniversary.

“In looking back on the life that Erma and I shared, I can say that I must have been favored by the Lord,” he said.

It was not his first public experience with grief, as he lost his teenage grandson to a car wreck in 1982.

In November, he will be challenged by Republican businessman John Raese. Mr. Byrd has raised more money for this race than previous battles, and has support from liberal groups such as MoveOn.org because of his opposition to the war.

He is expected to prevail. He’s never lost an election.

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