Even if President Biden gets his $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill through the Senate with some Republican help, he will still face a tougher climb and a partisan wall in seeking to pass a massive $3.5 trillion spending bill chock-full of Democratic priorities.
Republicans are not on board with that bill, so Democrats are trying to pass the legislation with a simple majority vote, using a maneuver known as reconciliation.
Reconciliation bills are not subject to filibuster. So they have been used to enact major changes to tax and spending laws in the past, starting with President Ronald Reagan’s landmark budget in 1981. Lots of partisan preferences can be enacted this way, but there is a limit.
Some priorities, including new voting-rights legislation, might not qualify. Why? Because everything has to be tied to the budget. That requirement was initially the work of one man, Sen. Robert C. Byrd, a Democrat from West Virginia.
After Reagan’s breakthrough in 1981, reconciliation was being used for a variety of purposes beyond mere budgeting. As a Senate institutionalist, a champion of its role and traditions, Byrd saw presidents and majority parties steamrolling the views of the minority. So, as leader of the Democrats in the Senate, he engineered a limitation on reconciliation starting in 1985, an exclusion for all matters deemed “extraneous” to the budget.
That stricture has for decades since been known in the Senate as the “Byrd Rule,” and the process of trying to get items to qualify is now known as a “Byrd bath.”
So who was this Byrd man, and how did he rise to wield so much power?
Who was Robert Byrd?
Byrd first came to Capitol Hill as a congressman the same month President Harry Truman left the White House in 1953.
Byrd was still in the Senate when Barack Obama became president in 2009. And Byrd was still a senator when he died the following year, ending the longest career in congressional history.
In his day, Byrd was never a household name, even when he was Senate majority leader. When he appeared on TV to respond to a presidential address, Byrd appeared awkward and out of his element.
But Byrd was very much at home in the Senate, where he served longer than anyone in history and made himself the chronicler and guardian of the institution.
In 1946, Byrd won his first run for office, playing his fiddle to draw crowds in the hollers and small towns of southern West Virginia on his way to the state legislature.
He also briefly joined the Ku Klux Klan, popular in his rural district, a move he would later regret. Throughout his career, he championed coal mining and other industries important to his home state, while working to find other sources of employment for his constituents.
He ended up in the Senate after a stint in the U.S. House with the historic Democratic wave of 1958. He would be reelected a record eight times. But his importance went far beyond mere seniority. The length of his career could only hint at the vast changes he saw in the Congress, in the country and even in himself.
Power in the Senate
Byrd spent most of his Senate career at or near its pinnacle of power. He first stepped onto the party leadership ladder as conference secretary in 1967, became majority whip four years later (replacing Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts) and finally majority leader in 1977. He remained the Democrats’ leader for the next dozen years, half that time in the minority during the Reagan years, from 1981 to 1987.
Some attributed Byrd’s election as whip to Kennedy’s rather casual approach to that job, which stood in contrast to Byrd’s own. Long known for devoting endless hours to issues and personal contacts back in West Virginia, Byrd brought much the same spirit and discipline to his leadership style. He tended his flock of ambitious and contentious colleagues, minding their schedules and political needs.
When he chose to step down as leader in 1989, he became chairman of the Appropriations Committee, a job he had been waiting to claim since joining the committee three decades before. He also became Senate president pro tempore, a largely ceremonial position held by the most senior senator in the majority party and third in the constitutional line of presidential succession.
Byrd would spend the next two decades directing as much federal spending as possible to his home state, saying he wanted to be “West Virginia’s billion-dollar industry.”
In 2009, having largely accomplished that goal, Byrd laid his Appropriations gavel down, acknowledging that at 91, his health and energy were not what they had been. But he held the title of president pro tempore until his death in June of 2010.
Byrd was known for his love of the Senate and his commitment to its history, which he described in more than 100 formal lectures delivered on the floor of the chamber and bound in a book to honor the Senate’s 200th birthday in 1989. He had seen much of the history himself and witnessed some of its more dramatic changes.
In 1964, he was part of a Southern Democrats’ filibuster against that year’s landmark Civil Rights Act. But in leadership, he became a mainstream Democrat on race as well as on other issues. Although he defended the filibuster as a Senate tradition and a guarantor of individual senators’ rights, he nonetheless voted to lower the supermajority required for cloture from two-thirds to three-fifths in 1975.
No member of the Senate in any era has been a better model of the self-made man. Born the son of a coal miner in Appalachia in 1917, he was raised by relatives after his mother died in the flu epidemic the following year.
He worked as a welder and a meat cutter and took classes at four colleges, never able to afford to study full time. While in Congress, he earned a law degree from American University in 1963. He later decided to finish his undergraduate work and received a bachelor’s degree in political science from Marshall University in 1994.
Byrd was always self-educating, reading U.S. history, constitutional law, classical literature and Shakespeare. He also schooled himself in Senate rules, precedents and procedures. It is perhaps fitting that today he is remembered largely for the complex procedural rule that bears his name.