Byrd was staunch defender of Senate traditions, says congressional expert

Shaped Senate institutions, civil rights policies as influential party leader

The U.S. Senate lost one of its staunchest defenders and most influential leaders with the death Monday, June 28, of long-serving Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia.

Steven Smith
Steven Smith

“The death of Robert Byrd is important,” says Steven S. Smith, a congressional expert at Washington University in St. Louis. “He was first and foremost a senator. He loved the Senate and was the strongest defender of its traditions.

“Byrd was instrumental to every institutional development in the Senate as his party’s floor leader in the 1970s and 1980s,” says Smith, the author seven books on congressional politics.

Smith testified in the last committee hearing attended by Byrd, a May 2010 hearing of the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration to explore issues related to filibusters and voting procedures.

“Byrd defended Rule XXII, which sets a three-fifths majority for cloture and protects the right of a large minority to block or delay a vote,” Smith says.

Byrd, who spent 51 of his 92 years as a U.S. Senator, also experienced big shifts in his own attitudes about important political and cultural issues.

“Perhaps more than anyone in Congress, Byrd represented the transformation of American race relations,” Smith says. “He had a scary past with the Klan and opposed civil rights legislation when he entered Congress but later championed the cause of civil rights as his party’s floor leader. He was a leader.”