Sen. Robert C. Byrd, the longest-serving senator in history, stepped down as chairman of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee on Friday after weeks of speculation that his party’s leadership was pressuring the 90-year-old West Virginia Democrat to resign the post.
Mr. Byrd said it was time for new leadership in the Senate’s largest committee, which controls more than $1 trillion in federal agencies’ budgets.
“I have learned that nothing is quite so permanent as change. It is simply a part of living and should not be feared,” he said. “A new day has dawned in Washington, and that is a good thing. For my part, I believe that it is time for a new day at the top of the Senate Appropriations Committee.”
As chairman he helped steer huge sums of federal dollars to West Virginia, one of the country’s poorest states, earning him the nickname “King of Pork” by the taxpayer watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste.
Mr. Byrd will remain as chairman of the subcommittee that writes the budget for the Department of Homeland Security.
The West Virginia icon is scheduled to be replaced by another of the Senate’s most senior Democrats - Daniel K. Inouye of Hawaii, who is 84 and has served in the Senate since 1963.
Mr. Inouye, who is the second-ranking Democrat in the Appropriations Committee, said he was humbled by Mr. Byrd’s recommendation that he succeed him as chairman.
“I hope that I am sufficiently prepared to succeed my mentor, who has assisted and guided me over the past 30 years, and in particular, during the years that he has led this important panel with distinction,” Mr. Inouye said.
Mr. Byrd, who was re-elected in 2006 for a ninth six-year term, is legendary for his fiery floor speeches and emotional outbursts. But he has become increasingly frail in recent years, particularly since the 2006 death of Erma, his wife of almost 69 years. He spent several days at Walter Reed Army Medical Center last winter after he fell at home, and was hospitalized in the spring due to a reaction to antibiotics.
Mr. Byrd said the decision to walk away from his chairmanship was his alone.
“I want to stress that this is a decision I made only after much personal soul-searching, and after being sure of the substantial Democratic pickup of seats in the Senate,” he said.
But rumors had persisted for weeks on Capitol Hill that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, was pressuring Mr. Byrd to step down after Tuesday’s elections because of age and health concerns.
A top Senate Democratic aide said the speculation that Mr. Reid had asked Mr. Byrd to step down was “100 percent not true.”
“We were caught by surprise by this as well,” the aide said.
Mr. Reid said Friday he had accepted Mr. Byrd’s decision to resign his chairmanship “with tremendous gratitude for his outstanding tenure as chairman.”
“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.