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Senate mourns Robert Byrd

The Senate convened Monday with white roses on an empty desk in the second row where Robert C. Byrd last sat, an institutional vacancy that will not soon be filled even after his successor is named.

When the nine-term Democratic senator from West Virginia spoke, Washington listened. He commanded attention in a way that no other modern lawmaker does, leaving the question: Who will guide the chamber now?

“The first answer to that is, nobody,” said Norman Ornstein, a constitutional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. “There’s nobody who knows the rules the way he knew the rules, nobody who knew the history the way he knew the history. You don’t have a protector of the institution the way he was.”

With flags at half-staff across the capital and tributes pouring in, leaders in both Washington and West Virginia conferred to determine the route forward.

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West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin III is likely in the next several days to name a caretaker to hold the seat until the 2012 election. He is expected to run for the seat himself at that time.

Republicans, sensing an opportunity for an electoral gain, will push the Democratic-controlled state legislature to allow voters to decide in November who will complete Byrd’s term.

“If Gov. Manchin makes an appointment, that’s 31 months with an undemocratically, unelected person serving as West Virginia’s representative when some of the most important issues concerning West Virginia are under consideration,” said Troy Berman, executive director of the West Virginia Republican Party.

Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, a popular five-term Republican, is widely seen as the GOP’s top contender for the post. Democrats believed to be under consideration as temporary appointees include outgoing state party leader Nick Casey, who was nominated by Obama for a federal judgeship; West Virginia Commerce Secretary Kelley Goes; and Larry Puccio, Manchin’s longtime chief of staff and the new state Democratic Party chairman.

Yet few in or outside the chamber seem able to match the institutional savvy of Byrd, especially with the death last year of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and the upcoming retirement of Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.). The mantle appeared to fall Monday to Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii), 85, who was sworn in as Byrd’s successor as the Senate’s president pro tempore.

As senators from both parties paid tribute to Byrd on the Senate floor, many said his death leaves a void in the chamber.

“Robert Byrd’s was one of the greatest minds the world has ever seen,” said Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the majority leader. Reid recalled a program with visiting British parliamentarians when Byrd recited a history of the British monarchs, naming each of them, to the awe of his guests.

Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the chamber’s Republican leader, said Byrd will be remembered “for the many times he recalled the Senate to its purposes.”

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In today’s Senate, where partisan sound bites typically trump the thoughtful oratory of days past, Washington is hard-pressed to identify not only an heir apparent to the Byrd traditions but a desire to see them persevere.

Said Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine), one of the few senators who is known to cross the partisan divide: “The Senate will not be the same without Sen. Byrd.”

lisa.mascaro@latimes.com

richard.simon@latimes.com

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