- Associated Press - Thursday, July 1, 2010

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Senate opened its doors for a final time Thursday for Robert C. Byrd, the West Virginian of humble origins who became a Senate fixture for nearly a quarter of the nation’s history.

A military honor guard carried Mr. Byrd‘s casket up the Capitol steps, past Mr. Byrd‘s portrait in a reception room and into the Senate chamber, where he is to lie in repose for six hours, allowing members of Congress and the public, many not born when he first entered the Senate 51 years ago, to pay their respects.

Mr. Byrd, who died Monday at age 92, served longer than any other senator in history, and it was his love of the Senate that drove the decision to honor him on the Senate floor, rather than in the Capitol Rotunda where other prominent figures are memorialized.

Mr. Byrd is the second political great the Senate has lost in the past year, following the death last August of Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts. Kennedy was elected in 1962, three years after Mr. Byrd entered the Senate.

Kennedy’s last motorcade took him to the steps of the Senate, where members of his staff and lawmakers gathered to pay their final respects, before moving on to Arlington Cemetery.

Mr. Byrd’s hearse arrived at those same steps Thursday, where it was met by the Democratic senator’s staff and about two dozen members of his family.

President Obama and Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. plan to travel to Charleston, W.Va., for a memorial service at the state capitol Friday honoring Mr. Byrd. From there, the body will return to Arlington, Va., for a funeral and burial at the private cemetery where his wife of almost seven decades, Erma, is buried.

Mr. Byrd’s casket was resting on the Lincoln Catafalque, a bier that was built for the coffin of Abraham Lincoln.

Mr. Byrd, a mostly self-educated man who grew up in an impoverished area of West Virginia coal country, became a guardian of the chamber’s customs and traditions, and will be the first person to lie in repose in the Senate since 1959.

That was the year Mr. Byrd, a fiddle-playing, states-rights Democrat, first entered the Senate after serving six years in the House. He went on to cast more than 18,000 votes and serve twice as Senate majority leader. At his death, he was president pro tempore of the Senate, third in line to the presidency behind the vice president and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Over the years, Mr. Byrd changed with the nation: The man who filibustered the 1964 Civil Rights Act for 14 hours came to support the creation of the Martin Luther King Jr. national holiday and supported Barack Obama in his bid to become the nation’s first black president.

What didn’t change were his commitment to lifting West Virginia out of poverty with billions of dollars in federal money and his defense of Congress, in particular the Senate, from what he considered encroachments by the executive branch.

The Senate chamber was to be closed to the public for about a half-hour while the family met with members of Congress. After that, the public could pay respects from the gallery above the Senate floor.

Mr. Byrd was famed for seeing to it that the Senate adhered to its rules, and one rule — that there be no TV cameras in the chamber when the Senate is not in session — was in force Thursday. Print reporters will be able to witness the memorial once it is open to the public, but there will be no filming of the event.

The public galleries will be open until 3:45 p.m., when the casket will be carried from the Capitol to a hearse that will take it to Andrews Air Force Base for a flight to Charleston, W.Va.

There is to be a public viewing from 9 p.m. Thursday through 9 a.m. Friday in the rotunda of the state capitol in Charleston. After a memorial service Friday morning outside the capitol, to be attended by Obama, Biden and a large contingent of lawmakers from Washington, Mr. Byrd‘s body will be flown back to Andrews.

Private services are scheduled for Tuesday at Columbia Gardens Cemetery in Arlington, Va., where Mr. Byrd will be buried.

It is fairly common for people of national import to lie in state or in honor in the Rotunda, the great hall in the center of the Capitol. Former Presidents Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford were honored in the Rotunda in 2004 and early 2007, and civil rights leader Rosa Parks in 2005.

But while 45 people, including 19th-century Senate greats such as John C. Calhoun, Henry Clay and Charles Sumner, were commemorated on the Senate floor after their deaths, the last to lie in repose in the Senate was William Langer of North Dakota in 1959.

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