Robert Byrd

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This is a profile of a former U.S. senator. (See all the West Virginia portal for all incumbents, candidates and blogs.)
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Robert Carlyle Byrd was the Senior Senator for the state of West Virginia until his death in 2010, at the age of 92. He was a Democrat, and was first elected in 1958, making him the longest-serving member of the Senate. (map) At the time of his death, Byrd was the President pro tempore of the Senate, the third in the line of succession for the Presidency, following the Vice President and the Speaker of the House.


Record and controversies

Congressional scorecards

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Organization 2007 Scorecard
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2008 Scorecard
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Iraq War

Byrd voted against the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq in Oct. 2002.
For more information see the chart of U.S. Senate votes on the Iraq War.

Opposition to war in Iraq

Byrd was one of the Senate's most outspoken critics of the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the Bush Doctrine's support of unilateralism and Preemptive warfare.

On October 17, 2003, Byrd delivered a speech expressing his concerns about the future of the nation and his unequivocal antipathy to the policies of President Bush. Referencing the Hans Christian Andersen children's tale The Emperor's New Clothes, Byrd said of the president: "the emperor has no clothes." Byrd further lamented the "sheep-like" behavior of the "cowed Members of this Senate" and called on them to oppose the continuation of a "war based on falsehoods."

In July 2004, Byrd released the book Losing America: Confronting a Reckless and Arrogant Presidency about the Bush presidency and the war in Iraq.

National security and foreign policy

In 2002, during the debate over giving President Bush the authority to use military force in Iraq, Sen. Byrd introduced several amendments to the bill. The first (S.AMDT.4869) would have placed a one-year limit on the authorization. Once the year ended, the president could extend the authorization if he believed it was necessary and Congress had not passed a joint resolution disapproving of the extension. The amendment failed 31-66. Another (S.AMDT.4868) clarified that Congress had not abandoned its constitutional power to declare war, and that any additional use of force in Iraq not connected to an imminent threat would require an additional grant of authority. That amendment failed 14-86.

Main article: Congressional actions on the Iraq War prior to the 2003 U.S. invasion

In 2003, during the debate over the FY2004 Defense Appropriation, Byrd introduced an amendment (S.AMDT.1244) prohibiting federal funding for National Guardsmen who had been stationed in Iraq for over 180 days or had been called into active duty more than once over the course of a 360-day period (effectively preventing it from happening). With the unanimous support of all Senate Republicans, Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) effectively motioned to table (kill) the amendment.

In 2005, Byrd proposed an amendment (S.AMDT.464) to the FY2005 Supplemental Appropriations bill that would express the sense of the Senate that any funds for ongoing military operations overseas, including those in Iraq and Afghanistan, should be included in the president's annual budget request. In addition, it urged the president to detail cost estimates for ongoing overseas military operations. Supporters felt as though the Bush Administration should need to tell American citizens what the wars would cost, rather than introducing emergency-supplemental legislation throughout the year. While thirty-one senators (all Republicans) opposed the amendment, no major reasons were provided during floor debate. The amendment passed 61-31.

Main article: Congressional actions on the Iraq War following the 2003 U.S. invasion

Environmental record

For more information on environmental legislation, see the Energy and Environment Policy Portal

Participation in the Ku Klux Klan

In the early 1940s, Byrd joined the Ku Klux Klan, which he had seen holding parades as a child. He "recruited 150 of his friends and associates to form a chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. After Byrd had collected the $10 joining fee and $3 charge for a robe and hood from every applicant, the Grand Dragon Joel L. Baskin for the mid-Atlantic states came down to tiny Crab Orchard, West Virginia to officially organize the chapter... "When it came time to choose the Exalted Cyclops, the top officer in the local Klan unit, Byrd won unanimously."[1] Byrd, in his autobiography, attributed the beginnings of his political career to this incident, though he lamented that they involved the Klan. According to Byrd's recollection, Baskin told him, "You have a talent for leadership, Bob... The country needs young men like you in the leadership of the nation." Byrd recalls that "suddenly lights flashed in my mind! Someone important had recognized my abilities. I was only 23 or 24, and the thought of a political career had never struck me. But strike me that night, it did." [2]

He participated in the KKK for a period of time during World War II, holding the titles "Kleagle", which indicated a Klan recruiter, and "Exalted Cyclops." Byrd did not serve in the military during the war, working instead as a welder in a Baltimore shipyard, assembling warships.

When running for Congress in 1952, he announced, "After about a year, I became disinterested, quit paying my dues, and dropped my membership in the organization. During the nine years that have followed, I have never been interested in the Klan." During this campaign, "Byrd went on the radio to acknowledge that he belonged to the Klan from 'mid-1942 to early 1943,' according to newspaper accounts. He explained that he had joined 'because it offered excitement and because it was strongly opposed to communism.' " ibid.

Byrd has often referred to his Klan membership as a mistake of his youth. As recently as 1997, he told an interviewer he'd encourage young people to become involved in politics, but with this warning: "Be sure you avoid the Ku Klux Klan. Don't get that albatross around your neck. Once you've made that mistake, you inhibit your operations in the political arena." Conservatives repeatedly point up his KKK membership to discredit him today, and his fellow Democratic Senators, as hypocritical. [3]

During the campaign, Byrd's Republican opponent "uncovered a letter Byrd had handwritten to [...] the KKK Imperial Wizard, recommending a friend as a Kleagle and urging promotion of the Klan throughout the country. The letter was dated 1946 -- when Byrd was 29 years old and long after the time Byrd claimed he had lost interest in the Klan. 'The Klan is needed today as never before, and I am anxious to see its rebirth here in West Virginia,' Byrd wrote, according to newspaper accounts of that period."ibid

During his campaign for the U.S. Senate in 1958, when Byrd was 41 years old, Byrd defended the Klan. He argued that the KKK had been incorrectly blamed for much of the violence in the South. [4]

In the 1960 Presidential election primaries, Byrd, a close ally of Lyndon B. Johnson, then Senate Majority Leader, tried to derail the Democratic front-runner and ultimately successful candidate John F. Kennedy in the crucial West Virginia primary. "Kennedy allies retaliated with leaks to the press about Byrd's work as a Klan organizer." [5]

Byrd later joined with other southern Democrats to oppose the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Byrd filibustered the bill for more than 14 hours, saying it abrogated principles of federalism. He also opposed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, but voted for the Civil Rights Act of 1968, which was a substantially more controversial bill than the previous two as it made racial discrimination in selling homes and renting out apartments illegal.

For additionsl external reading on this topic ....

Accusations of racism

Some conservatives contend that Byrd's opposition to President George H. W. Bush's nomination of Clarence Thomas to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1991 to replace Thurgood Marshall -- making Byrd the only Senator to have opposed the nomination of both of the only two black Supreme Court justices – and Byrd's 2004 opposition to some of George W. Bush's judicial and cabinet nominees who are black, notably Federal Judge Janice Rogers Brown and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, was motivated by racism. Niger Innis, a conservative Republican consultant and spokesperson for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), a conservative civil rights group, claimed that Byrd's hold on Rice's nomination was "racist" and said that Byrd has "black colleagues in the House and the Senate who apologize for him." [6] Byrd has not opposed other people of color that Bush has nominated in the past, voting for Secretary of Education Rod Paige and Secretary of State Colin Powell. The NAACP, the nation's oldest and largest civil rights organization awarded Byrd a 100% rating in its Congressional score card, based on what they consider his pro-civil rights votes. [7]

On March 4, 2001, an interview with FOX News Sunday host Tony Snow was aired. In the interview Byrd was asked about race relations: "They are much, much better than they've ever been in my lifetime," Byrd said. "I think we talk about race too much. I think those problems are largely behind us ... I just think we talk so much about it that we help to create somewhat of an illusion. I think we try to have good will. My old mom told me, 'Robert, you can't go to heaven if you hate anybody.' We practice that. There are white niggers. I've seen a lot of white niggers in my time. I'm going to use that word. We just need to work together to make our country a better country, and I'd just as soon quit talking about it so much."[8]

When asked about it, Byrd apologized for the language: " 'I apologize for the characterization I used on this program,' he said. 'The phrase dates back to my boyhood and has no place in today's society. [...] 'In my attempt to articulate strongly held feelings, I may have offended people.' "ibid

Supreme Court Filibuster

On May 23, 2005, Byrd was one of fourteen Senators to forge a compromise on the Democrats' use of the judicial filibuster, thus blocking the Republican leadership's attempt to implement the "Nuclear option". Under the agreement, the Democrats would retain the power to filibuster a Bush judicial nominee in only an "extraordinary circumstance", and three conservative Bush appellate court nominees (Janice Rogers Brown, Priscilla Owen and William H. Pryor, Jr.) would receive a vote by the full Senate.

Byrd broke from his party's stance during the confirmation hearings of Judge Samuel Alito. On January 26th, 2006, Byrd announced his support for Alito's confirmation as Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court, being one of the few Democrats to do so. [9]


In December 2006, it became clear that the newly-elected Democratic-controlled Congress would need to address FY 2007 budgets in the first few weeks of the 110th Congress. Sen. Byrd and Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.), incoming chairs of the Senate and House appropriations committees, said that Democrats would place a moratorium on Earmarks “until a reformed process is put in place.” Obey stated, “Republicans have spent years handing out billions upon billions of dollars in tax cuts to millionaires while shortchanging our national priorities...It is going to take us years to get back on track.” Specifically, this would entail passing a continuing resolution without any earmarks to continue funding the federal government through the remainder of FY 2007 (through Sept. 30). President Bush called the moratorium “a good start” towards achieving fiscal discipline in Congress.

When the Senate considered the continuing resolution for FY2007, after House passage, Sen. Tom Coburn, the Senate's sole physician, strongly criticized the resolution for failing to fund a $30 million program he authored to test newborns for the AIDS virus. A spokesman for Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Byrd said the funds were not appropriated because no states had yet met the criteria to be eligible to receive them.

Main article: Continuing resolution of 2007

Hold on Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act

When the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act was placed on the Senate calendar on August 2, 2006, the bill was prevented from reaching the floor by Sens. Byrd and Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), who each put anonymous holds on it. For weeks, it was uncertain which senator(s) had placed the holds. In response, many in the blogging community contacted senatorial offices in an attempt to pin down the “secret” holders. By August 30, 2006, denials were obtained by 98 senators, leaving only Stevens and Byrd. On this date, a spokesperson for Stevens admitted that the seven-term senator had a hold on the legislation. He explained that Stevens merely wanted the bill delayed until he was convinced that it would not create another unnecessary layer of government bureaucracy. There were also reports by some that Stevens may have been acting in retaliation. In 2005, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), a sponsor of the bill, placed a hold on a Stevens’s bill concerning ocean research, arguing that it was too expensive. In addition, Coburn was a vocal opponent of the $223 million appropriation that Stevens advocated for a bridge connecting two sparsely-populated Alaskan islands (commonly known as the "Bridge to nowhere"). On August 31, a spokesperson for Byrd confirmed his hold in a statement. It noted that the senator, “wanted time to read the legislation, understand its implications, and see whether the proposal could be improved.” Upon issuing the statement, Byrd announced that he was releasing his hold. In the week that followed, Stevens dropped his hold, reinstated it, and then dropped it yet again. There were also rumors during this time that another Democrat had placed a hold on the bill. This, however, was never substantiated.

In the days surrounding the search and revelation of the anonymous holders, leaders from both major political parties expressed displeasure with those keeping the bill from the floor. DNC Chairman Howard Dean singled out Stevens, blaming him for “the wasteful mess that he and his party have made of the federal budget.” Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) criticized those involved, calling it “deeply ironic” that legislation designed to remove anonymity from earmarks was being stopped by secret holds. Frist then declared that he would bring the legislation to the floor “hold or no hold.” As majority leader, he did indeed have the power to go forward with the bill regardless of any outstanding holds on it.

By September 7, all holds were removed from S.2590 and the Senate finally considered it. Eventually, it passed both the Senate and House and was signed into law by President Bush.

Main article: Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act



Byrd was born Cornelius Calvin Sale Jr. in North Wilkesboro, North Carolina, on November 20, 1917. When he was one year old, his mother died in the 1918 Flu Pandemic. In accordance with his mother's wishes, his father dispersed the family children among relatives. Byrd was given to the custody of an aunt and an uncle, Vlurma and Titus Byrd, who renamed him Robert Byrd; they raised him in the coal-mining region of southern West Virginia.

His parents inculcated Byrd in "the typical southern viewpoint of the time," Byrd has written. "Blacks were generally distrusted by many whites, and I suspect they were subliminally feared." [10] His father was a member of the Klu Klux Klan (KKK), a fact that would influence Byrd's later life. [11]

Byrd graduated valedictorian of his high school class in 1937. He attended Beckley College (now Mountain State University), Concord College (now Concord University), Morris Harvey College (now the University of Charleston), and Marshall College (now Marshall University), all in West Virginia. He worked as a gas-station attendant, grocery-store clerk, shipyard welder, and butcher before he won a seat in the West Virginia House of Delegates in 1946, representing Raleigh County. He served there from 1947 to 1950, then served in the West Virginia Senate from 1951 to 1952. He has never lost an election. After taking a decade of night classes while in Congress, he graduated from American University's Washington College of Law in 1963. "This marked the first time in history that a sitting member of either House of the Congress has accomplished the feat of beginning and completing the courses of study leading to a law degree while serving in Congress. Byrd was awarded his Bachelor of Arts degree in political science, summa cum laude, by Marshall University in 1994."Senate web site

According to his Senate web site, during World War II, Byrd worked as a welder "building 'Liberty' and 'Victory' ships in the construction yards of Baltimore, Maryland, and Tampa, Florida.

  • Robert Byrd is of no relation to Harry F. Byrd and Harry F. Byrd, Jr., both former U.S. Senators from Virginia.

Senate Career

Byrd has been a member of the Democratic leadership since 1967, when he was elected as secretary of the Senate Democratic Conference (caucus). He became Senate Majority Whip in 1971. From 1977 to 1989 Byrd was the leader of the Senate Democrats, serving as Senate Majority Leader from 1977-81 and 1987-89 and as Senate Minority Leader from 1981-87.

"On two different occasions, Senator Byrd has served as Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, on which he has held membership since January 1959. Also twice, Senator Byrd unanimously was elected President pro tempore of the Senate, a post that placed him third in line of succession to the Presidency. He was President pro tempore from 1989 through 1994, and again from June 2001 through the end of 2002."Senate web site

Byrd's ability to steer federal dollars to West Virginia, the nation's second poorest state (behind only Mississippi) has been remarkably effective - even before he became top Democrat on the Appropriations Committee in 1989. When he became chairman of the committee, he sought to steer, over time, a total of $1 billion for public works to West Virginia. He passed that mark in 1991, and the steady streams of funds for highways, dams, educational institutions, and federal agency offices has progressed unabated in the last 16 years (eight as chairman and eight as ranking minority member). More than thirty pending or existing federal projects bear Byrd's name. He is close friends with Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), with whom he has alternated as chairman of the committee and who is also legendary for sending federal money back to his home state. Their relationship has been strained in recent years over Byrd's recent stands on President Bush's policies.

2006 election

In 2006, the Republicans nominated John R. Raese to challenge Byrd in his bid for reelection. (See U.S. congressional elections in 2006) Byrd retained his seat.

Stepping down from chairmanship

Byrd announced that he would be voluntarily relinquishing his chairmanship of the Senate Appropriations Committee on Nov. 7, 2008. He had been a member of the committee for 50 years, 10 of them as chairman. [1]

Money in politics

This section contains links to – and feeds from – money in politics databases. For specific controversies, see this article's record and controversies section.

Campaign contribution data could not be found.

Links to more campaign contribution information for Robert Byrd
from the Center for Responsive Politics' site.
Fundraising profile: 2008 election cycle Career totals
Top contributors by organization/corporation: 2008 election cycle Career totals
Top contributors by industry: 2008 election cycle Career totals

Committees and Affiliations


Committees in the 110th Congress (2007-2008)

Committee assignments in the 109th Congress (2005-2006)

Byrd was appointed to the Appropriations Committee by then-Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson when he first came to the Senate in 1958.

More Candidate Data


DC office
  • 2305 Rayburn Cannon House Office Building Washington, DC 20515
    Ph: 202-225-3101 Fax: 202-225-3354
    Webform email
District offices
  • 300 Virginia Street East, Suite 2630, Charleston, WV 25301-2523
    Ph: (none entered) Fax: (none entered)
On the Web
Campaign office
  • No campaign website entered.
  • No campaign webform email entered.
  • No campaign office information entered.

Articles and Resources


  1. David Rogers, "Byrd will voluntarily give up chairmanship," Politico, Nov. 7, 2007.


Local blogs and discussion sites

Works by Byrd

SourceWatch Resources


Semantic data (Edit data)