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Passing of Senator Robert C. Byrd

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VICE PRESIDENT BIDEN: "As we used to say in my years in the Senate, if you’ll excuse a point of personal privilege here for a moment, a very close friend of mine, one of my mentors -- a guy who was there when I was a 29-year-old kid being sworn into the United States Senate shortly thereafter; a guy who stood in the rain, in a pouring rain, freezing rain outside a church as I buried my daughter and my wife before I got sworn in, Robert C. Byrd. He passed away today. He was the -- we lost the dean of the United States Senate, but also the state of West Virginia lost its most fierce advocate and, as I said, I lost a dear friend.


“Throughout his 51 years, the longest tenure of any member in Congress in the history of the United States, Robert C. Byrd was a tough, compassionate, and outspoken leader and dedicated above all else to making life better for the people of the mountain state -- his state, the state of West Virginia. He never lost sight of home. He may have spent half a century in Washington. But there’s a guy -- if anybody wondered -- he never, never, never, never took his eye of his beloved mountain state. And we shall not -- to paraphrase the poet -- we shall not see his like again. And the Senate is a lesser place for his going."

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Guest The White House

Statement of the President on the Passing of Senator Byrd


I was saddened to hear this morning that the people of West Virginia have lost a true champion, the United States Senate has lost a venerable institution, and America has lost a voice of principle and reason with the passing of Robert C. Byrd.


Senator Byrd’s story was uniquely American. He was born into wrenching poverty, but educated himself to become an authoritative scholar, respected leader, and unparalleled champion of our Constitution. He scaled the summit of power, but his mind never strayed from the people of his beloved West Virginia. He had the courage to stand firm in his principles, but also the courage to change over time.


He was as much a part of the Senate as the marble busts that line its chamber and its corridors. His profound passion for that body and its role and responsibilities was as evident behind closed doors as it was in the stemwinders he peppered with history. He held the deepest respect of members of both parties, and he was generous with his time and advice, something I appreciated greatly as a young senator.


We take solace in the fact that he is reunited with his wife of nearly 69 years, Erma; and our thoughts and prayers are with their daughters, their grandchildren and great grandchildren, and all the people of West Virginia who loved Robert C. Byrd.

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Guest Senator Jay Rockefeller

Senator Jay Rockefeller and his wife, Sharon, today joined West Virginians and people across the country in remembering the life and legacy of Senator Robert C. Byrd.


“It has been my greatest privilege to serve with Robert C. Byrd in the United States Senate. I looked up to him, I fought next to him, and I am deeply saddened that he is gone,” Senator Rockefeller said. “He leaves a void that simply can never be filled. But I am lifted by the knowledge of his deep and abiding faith in God, I have joy in the thought of him reunited with his dear Erma, and I am proud knowing that his moving life story and legacy of service and love for West Virginia will live on.


“Senator Byrd came from humble beginnings in the southern coalfields, was raised by hard-working West Virginians, and triumphantly rose to the heights of power in America. But he never forgot where he came from nor who he represented, and he never abused that power for his own gain.

“My lasting thoughts and innermost prayers are with his family, his staff, the people of West Virginia, and all those who loved him.”

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Guest Gov. Joe Manchin

Gov. Joe Manchin today released the following statement after learning about the passing of U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd:


"Gayle and I are deeply saddened by the passing of our dear friend and great senior Sen. Robert C. Byrd.


"Like all West Virginians, the news broke our hearts. Sen. Byrd was a fearless fighter for the constitution, his beloved state and its great people.


"He made a significant mark as a member of Congress in both our state's and nation's history. His accomplishments and contributions will define history for eternity.


"Our hearts and prayers go out to his daughters, friends and loved ones, his committed staff and to the people of West Virginia; we have suffered a terrible loss."

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U.S. local government emergency managers lost a long time friend and champion of emergency management today with the death of Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) at age 92. Byrd had been a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee since 1959, and was currently serving as the Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security, which has jurisdiction over emergency management.


“Chairman Byrd and his superb staff were constantly working to ensure that we local government emergency managers, as key stakeholders, had an opportunity for input into policy and funding issues related to the preparedness of our local governments,” said Pam L’Heureux, CEM, president of the U.S. Council of the International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM-USA), and local government emergency manager for Waterboro, Maine. “He recognized the importance of the Emergency Management Performance Grant for building the capacity of our state and local governments to respond to all hazards and we are very grateful for his long time strong support.”


“Being from West Virginia, a disaster prone state, Senator Byrd understood the true value of building and sustaining strong emergency management programs—programs that worked, not just programs that looked good on paper,” said Randall C. Duncan, CEM, chair of the U.S. Government Affairs Committee of IAEM-USA, and a local government emergency manager in Wichita/Sedgwick County, Kan. “He had little patience for emergency management policy directives that came from on high without input from local emergency managers and insisted on consultation.”

Chairman Byrd was a key advocate of the Post Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act – an effort to strengthen the Federal Emergency Management Agency after Katrina – and he and his staff continued to insist on its implementation.


Senator Byrd’s death is a great loss to our Country, West Virginia, and all the Nation’s emergency managers. He and his staff set the absolute highest standards for public service. We offer our condolences to his family and his wonderful staff.

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“The United Mine Workers and all coal-mining families and communities have lost their best friend in U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd.


“A son of the West Virginia mountains who married into a coal-mining family, Sen. Byrd dedicated his entire life to making things better for coal miners everywhere. He was a champion of the 1969 Coal Miner Health and Safety Act, and convinced President Nixon not to veto the bill. In the 40 years prior to its passage, 32,000 miners lost their lives on the job. In the 40 years since, that number stands at slightly more than 3,200. One could argue that thanks to Sen. Byrd’s efforts, 29,000 lives were saved.


“Since that time, Sen. Byrd consistently fought for additional protections for miners. He led the charge to secure the 1977 revisions to the 1969 Act. He fought in 1992 to continue health care benefits for mining families, and many times since then to secure funding, so that today, 100,000 UMWA members are still getting benefits. He relentlessly pushed for answers in the Aracoma and Sago disasters to prevent these tragedies from occurring again. And he fought for enhanced Black Lung benefits his entire life.


“Despite failing health, Sen. Byrd fought to the very end to improve miners’ lives. Last spring, his amendments to the health care bill restored the process of miners getting – and their widows keeping – black lung benefits for those miners who have been totally disabled by this terrible disease. And just last month, he grilled Massey CEO Don Blankenship during a Senate hearing he led into the Upper Big Branch mine disaster.


“All of us from the coalfields have lost our best friend in Robert C. Byrd. We extend our deepest sympathy to his family and friends.”

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The passing of Senator Robert C. Byrd from the American political scene also marks the departure of a great American character. This fiddle-playing high school graduate who earned a law degree at night (in 1963) and a college degree via correspondence courses (in 1994) regularly quoted the Bible, the classics, and large swaths of memorized poetry on the floor of the Senate was also a historian of the institution he loved most: The United States Senate.


Curiously, his reverence for the Senate and fierce defense of its constitutional role resulted in a most remarkable Government book on ancient Rome: The Senate of the Roman Republic: Addresses on the History of Roman Constitutionalism. The roots of this book lay in Senator Byrd’s determined opposition to the idea of the line-item veto, which would grant the President the power to veto particular items in appropriations bills. Byrd viewed this proposal as usurping the Senate’s role and a threat to constitutional checks and balances. As a result, to quote Senate Historian Richard C. Baker’s Foreword, the Senator “initiated a series of fourteen addresses in opposition to the proposed line-item veto concept. During the following five and a-half months, he delivered each of the speeches – packed with names, dates, and complex narratives – entirely from memory and without recourse even to notes on consultation with staff aides.” (Italics in the original).


(Note: I knew Dick Baker when he was Senate Historian and asked him about the Senator’s role in writing both this book and his 4-volume The Senate: 1789-1989. He assured me that the Senator was indeed the author of these books, not just a speech reader.)


The Senate of the Roman Republic is replete with scholarly references to Polybius, Tacitus, and Montesquieu, as well as impassioned arguments against the line-item veto – surely a unique method of resisting encroachment on the rights of the Senate, and one we’ll not likely see again. Likewise, the departure of Robert Byrd, a man of the 20th century whose personality retained a bit of the flavor of the 19th, will leave Congress with a bit less color and zest.

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