Inside Job

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NOVEMBER 11, 2002

Inside Job

As Congress took up the question of Iraq this fall, Democrats found
themselves divided over what their party's position should be. But
most agreed on at least one thing: It was best to get the war
debate over with quickly and return to domestic issues before the
November election. Well aware that a tough resolution was sure to
pass easily, even an impassioned dove like the late Paul Wellstone
aired his doubts with relative brevity and restraint.But one Democrat wanted no part of this plan: West Virginia Senator
Robert C. Byrd. Throughout the Iraq debate, the dapper,
white-haired 84-year-old was a constant presence on the Senate
floor, arguing against the Iraq resolution for hours at a time. In
his opening statement on the issue--a grandiose rhetorical libretto
of the sort for which he is famous--Byrd raged at a White House
whose "newly bellicose mood is clearly motivated by campaign
politics" and a resolution that he called "a blank check," "a
cynical twisting of words," and "breathtaking--breathtaking--in its
scope." But Byrd was even harsher on his fellow Democrats. "Fie
upon some of the so-called leaders of the Congress!" he shouted.
The next day he added, "We have rubber spines, rubber legs, and we
do not have backbones." Three days after that he asked, "I wonder
what has gotten into our Democratic leaders that they would embrace
this kind of thing?" And in case it wasn't abundantly clear, Byrd
made explicit his intention to prevent a quick vote. "We make a
huge mistake in deciding this issue in an effort to `get it behind
us,'" he complained on October 3. "Slow down. Think. Ask questions.
Debate."

To Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, who was desperate to change
the subject from Iraq back to domestic issues, Byrd may as well
have been dragging his nails across a chalkboard. The Iraq debate
epitomized the West Virginian's increasingly fraught relationship
with his Democratic colleagues. Although you won't often see him on
"Hardball" or "Meet the Press," as chairman of the mighty Senate
Appropriations Committee and a master of the Senate's Byzantine
parliamentary rules, Byrd is widely acknowledged to be one of the
most powerful men in Washington. That power is enhanced by the fact
that, as an incumbent of 50 years who can behold a bronze statue of
himself in the West Virginia state capitol, he is able to do and
say as he pleases without fear of losing his Senate seat. As a
result, one Senate leadership aide says, "He sometimes is the
purest voice of the party's core principles." That purity has always
had a tendency to veer off into shrillness and self-importance, but
lately it has caused more and more headaches for the
party--undermining Daschle's leadership, delaying politically
sensitive legislation, and generally making the Democratic Senate
look as though it's in disarray. Daschle ultimately succeeded in
getting the Iraq resolution passed--but not before Byrd had spent
days publicly excoriating his colleagues. Just a couple of months
earlier Byrd managed to hold up passage of the Homeland Security
Act--contributing to a delay that the GOP has been using to
bludgeon Democratic senators in this fall's elections. And no one
on Daschle's side of the aisle is much looking forward to the
outsized role that Byrd, as Appropriations chair, will likely play
when the Senate debates the budget later this year or early in
2003. As a senior senate GOP aide puts it gleefully, "Senator Byrd
is a gift."

It's not hard to appreciate Robert Byrd's peculiar charms. He is,
more than anything, a man out of time, a "Twilight Zone" character
bringing an erudite, nineteenth-century sensibility to a crass,
information-age Senate. Born in 1917, Byrd is thoroughly
anti-modern. He is a self-trained classical scholar who quotes
Cicero where other politicians would opt for a sports metaphor. For
decades he played the fiddle, until the now-constant trembling of
his hands-- sometimes so pronounced that he can hardly sip a glass
of water or put on his eyeglasses--forced him to stop. Although his
profession is now completely defined by television, Byrd despises
what he calls "this crazy boob-tube in the home. I don't listen to
it a great deal." He claims to have attended only one movie during
his half-century in Washington (something with Yul Brynner, he
says, "and I did not stay through that one"). Byrd openly disdains
the state of modern politics; he complains about his colleagues'
obsession with fund-raising, their poor grasp of history, and the
shallowness of modern political debate. In 1995, he groused about
the "mindless gabble and rhetorical putridities" of Congress.
Partly in response, no doubt, Byrd has appointed himself guardian
of the Senate's prerogatives and of the integrity of the
Constitution. Byrd wrote a four-volume history of the Senate, which
he humbly refers to as "the anchor of the Republic." And when he
(rightly or wrongly) perceives a threat to the Constitution--as he
did during the Iraq debate and during past battles over a
presidential line-item veto and a balanced-budget amendment--Byrd
digs in like the last Japanese platoon at Iwo Jima.

Unfortunately, Byrd apparently fails to grasp how much he has
devalued his erudition through self-parodying excess. He once began
a press conference, for instance, by spending several minutes
listing every signer of the Constitution. When discussing a topic
as mundane as tax cuts, Byrd is apt to quote the words of the dying
Voltaire, as he did in one recent interview with Roll Call. He
opened his concluding speech in the Iraq debate with a quotation
from the eleventh-century Persian poet Omar Khayyam--before going
on to cite the Book of Luke, Alexander Hamilton, Charles I of
England, the apostle Paul, and Demosthenes. A Senate aide says that
Byrd recently complained to another senator who had crossed him,
"You forsook me."

This clanging hauteur is consistent with Byrd's grandiose view of
himself. In his Senate office, he works at a desk under an enormous
portrait of himself. His website includes a first-person biography
detailing "my upward trajectory" through politics and a page of
quotes from senior senators calling him things like "a legend in
his own time" and "a man of great historical knowledge." There are
more than two dozen federal projects in West Virginia, built with
money procured by Byrd, to which his name is affixed.

And woe to the fellow senator who crosses him. As Appropriations
chairman, Byrd has final say over which of his colleagues' pet
projects will be tucked into annual spending bills. And thanks to
his mastery of Senate rules--and his willingness to speak for hours
on the floor--Byrd can usually find a way to bring a colleague's
bill to a grinding halt. Once, when the late Republican Senator
John Chafee momentarily objected to Byrd's request for additional
speaking time on the Senate floor, Byrd pointedly thanked him for
the recent funding request Chafee had sent to the Appropriations
Committee. Chafee quickly sat down. When then-Energy Secretary Bill
Richardson skipped a hearing to which Byrd had summoned him in June
of 2000, Byrd declared that Richardson would "never again receive
the support of the Senate of the United States for an appointive
position." Senate lore even holds that Byrd once taped the
roll-call vote of a bill affecting West Virginia coal mining to the
door of his Senate office as a many-times-a-day reminder of who was
with him and who was not.

This vindictiveness understandably leads other senators to make
pilgrimages to Byrd's office to kiss his ring. When Hillary Clinton
was finding her place in the Senate early last year, for example,
she made an exaggerated show of seeking out Byrd as a
mentor--visiting him at his office and openly praising his wisdom.
("She played Byrd masterfully," a Clinton adviser told The
Washington Post. "If she had gotten on the wrong side of him, she
would have spent years getting right.") After Byrd's beloved dog,
Billy, died last year, New York Senator Charles Schumer planned to
offer Byrd his sympathies. But Schumer had forgotten the dog's
name, and when he asked Ted Kennedy, the Massachusetts senator
mischievously replied, "Fido." Schumer made it halfway over to Byrd
before realizing with horror that he'd been set up and returned to
chide a giggling Kennedy. "It goes to the issue of how much
reverence people have for the Appropriations chairman," chuckles a
former senior Senate Democratic aide.

Even one of Byrd's primary institutional foes has little option but
to suck up to him. Ever since George W. Bush took office, Byrd has
battled with White House Budget Director Mitch Daniels over federal
spending--and has shown a real personal disdain for Daniels. Byrd
singled out Daniels by name on the Senate floor last summer,
complaining that he is "always meddling, always meddling in the
Congress ... always lecturing the Congress. ... I'm fed up to my
ears." In a strained Shakespeare reference, Byrd even referred to
Daniels as a "little Caesar"--a line some White House officials
interpreted as a cheap personal shot at Daniels's height. But given
an opportunity to return the favor, Daniels is positively
deferential: "To me, he's a very amazing person," Daniels gushes.
"I think I wound up on the wrong side of him and [still] found our
encounters without exception memorable and fun."

Perhaps because he is treated with such elaborate deference, Byrd
does not show the same kind of restraint as many of his colleagues.
Early last year, for instance, Byrd gave a bizarre interview to Fox
News in which he mused about the existence of "white niggers."
Coming from a man who has never quite lived down his brief
membership in the Ku Klux Klan, it was an inexplicably dumb
statement. At a committee hearing earlier this year Byrd engaged in
a strange duel with Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, in which the
two men argued about who had grown up poorer. "I lived in a house
without electricity. ... No running water, no telephone, little
wooden outhouse," Byrd huffed.

But the problem for Democrats is not that Byrd often makes himself
look bad. It's that he often makes the party look bad. After all,
no Republican trashes the Democrats as effectively as Byrd. Less
than one month after the September 11 attacks, for instance, Byrd
was ridiculing the "paucity of debate" over Congress's resolution
to allow the use of force against terrorism, and he said the
attacks had "put a zipper on [Senators'] lips"--making his
colleagues look like a bunch of ineffectual wimps. Last winter Byrd
led a budget showdown with the White House in which he insisted on
adding billions of dollars in extra homeland security spending to a
defense appropriations bill. Byrd's substantive position--that the
White House was shortchanging critical priorities like bioterrorism
and port security--was actually quite reasonable. But Daschle was
understandably loath to appear to be holding up a defense spending
bill in the middle of war in Afghanistan. And Byrd did an
ineffectual job of explaining his crusade, allowing the White House
to disingenuously ridicule his effort as just another pork feast
from Chairman Byrd. Unable to get Byrd to back down, Daschle was
subjected to embarrassing questions about whether he could control
the West Virginian, and Republicans snickered that Byrd was really
in charge. A fed-up Daschle finally brokered a solution with
Republican leader Trent Lott--without consulting Byrd. (Byrd was so
angry that he wouldn't allow his staff to help write the
compromise, and Daschle aides had to enlist Republican committee
staffers.)

So far, this year has brought more of the same. This spring, as
Democrats toed the White House line on the war on terrorism, Byrd
broke off with some freelance criticisms at a committee hearing.
("If we expect to kill every terrorist in the world, that's going
to keep us going beyond doomsday," Byrd complained. "How long can
we afford this?") When reporters asked Daschle about those words
the next day, the majority leader tepidly echoed them--and was
hammered for days in the media.

Then came the first of this year's two major Robert Byrd shows so
far: the debate over a new Homeland Security Department. As with
the war on Iraq, Democrats had their reservations about the Bush
administration's approach, but most felt it best that the party
support him in Congress. Indeed, Bush's plan was essentially ripped
off from one crafted by Joe Lieberman, and Democrats saw a chance
to earn some credit on the issue. But Byrd hated the idea of the
new department; he thought Congress was acting in haste and
especially disliked the idea that it might be ceding some of its
powers to the executive branch. So Byrd took it upon himself to
stall the bill for as long as possible and spent hours on the
floor, effectively filibustering the measure and ensuring it would
not pass before the September 11 deadline many in Congress had hoped
to meet. Even after the recess Byrd continued his crusade, which
included an afternoon in which he spoke for more than three hours
to forestall an amendment with which he did not agree. By
afternoon's end, Democratic Whip Harry Reid finally had to plead
with Byrd to shut up so he could go home for his wedding
anniversary. (Reid said he dared not interrupt but that he was
"considering waving a white flag.") Byrd responded by ruminating at
length on the word "whip, " former Senate leader Mike Mansfield,
and Richard Nixon's bombing of Cambodia before finally relenting
when Reid promised that he would be the first senator recognized to
speak the next morning.

Byrd's ridicule of the Homeland Security plan made supportive
Democrats like Lieberman look foolish. More important, his delay of
the legislation chewed up precious time Daschle could have devoted
to other popular Democratic measures, like a minimum-wage hike. And
by delaying a vote until after the August recess, Byrd may well
have contributed to its downfall. The nearer Election Day grew, the
harder it became for Democrats to offend their labor allies on the
key sticking point of union protections. Now the bill's stall-out
has become a favorite GOP campaign theme.

Then there was the Iraq debate. It was Byrd's intention to drag the
debate into another painful week, meaning Democrats would have lost
several of the precious days they had left before the election to
talk about their core domestic issues. On the day of the vote Byrd
informed his colleagues that he had found an opening that would
allow him to filibuster the Iraq resolution three separate times:
once for the original White House resolution; once for the
compromise text that had been amended to it; and, most inventively,
once for the preamble--the list of flowery "whereases" which, under
Senate rules, required a vote of their own. Byrd was ready for a
fight against his own leadership, a point he made by warning that
he could fight "until the flesh from my bones be hacked." Many of
Byrd's fellow Democrats were appalled. "He was playing perfectly
into the Republican plan," says one senior party official.

But Daschle had finally had enough. The Senate leader vowed a vote
would come that night. "For every conversation I have with a
senator who would like more time," he said, "I have three
conversations with senators who would like to be out of
Washington." Daschle then beat Byrd at his own game, employing the
parliamentary trick of revising the resolution so that the preamble
was inserted into the main text. Byrd had lost his foothold. But
even as he conceded defeat, Byrd made a point of warning fellow
Democrats that, had he wanted, he could have kept on fighting. "But
don't you think for a moment I can't stand on this floor all the
rest of this night," Byrd promised, listing the havoc he could have
wreaked. "For example, the title of the resolution could be
amended," he said with a sinister grin. "Ha. How about that?" But,
he concluded, there is a "time to accept reality." Democrats can
only hope Byrd will apply that lesson with greater frequency in the
future.

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