Opinion: Like a swallow to Capistrano, Byrd returns to Senate


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Robert Byrd, the longest-serving member in the history of the U.S. Senate, returned Thursday to cast some crucial budget votes -- and hoping to put to rest a reported move by Democratic leaders in the Senate to replace Byrd as chair of the Appropriations Committee.

Byrd, 90, has been in and out of the hospital since falling in his Virginia home last month, and his precarious health prompted some obvious speculation about how much longer he’ll be setting that record for longevity. He spent most of Thursday’s Senate session in a wheelchair, but his West Virginia twang echoed strongly as he cast his votes.


Of course, the balance of power in the Senate is rather precarious itself right now too. Split 49-49, the Democrats control 51-49 with the support of centrist Joe Lieberman, who famously became independent when Connecticut Democrats spurned his reelection bid, and Bernie Sanders, the left-leaning former congressman and mayor of Burlington, Vt.

Byrd’s presence could be crucial on tough votes -- like Thursday’s round-robin of budget votes so important that even the ambitious trio of Hillary Clinton, John McCain and Barack Obama made it back from the hustings to do their elected duty.

But Byrd’s apparent frailty puts Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in an uncomfortable position: What to do. And the lack of information from Byrd’s office over his health and timetable for return didn’t make things easier. From Roll Call’s coverage:

During Byrd’s hospitalization, talk has abounded about the severity of his illness. Much of that speculation was fueled by the fact that he did not have contact with even senior Members of the leadership until he returned to the floor today in a wheelchair.

Senate Democratic sources indicated earlier this week that the party leadership would be evaluating Byrd’s condition over the upcoming two-week recess before deciding whether to consider replacing him in either his committee or leadership positions. But it was unclear, now that Byrd has returned, whether those evaluations would actually take place.

In fact, Reid didn’t even know Thursday morning whether Byrd would be on hand for the votes, which had to be galling, even if Reid didn’t let on. When you’re in charge of the team, and you don’t know who’s showing up for the game, it can be hard to plan. And hard to lead.

-- Scott Martelle