W.Va. senator leads fight against GOP's `nuclear option'

Byrd decries attempt to limit judicial filibuster


WASHINGTON - After 46 years in the U.S. Senate - including a 12-year stint as Democratic leader - Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia sees himself as its protector and defender, a guardian of its history and traditions.

A co-author of a four-volume tome of Senate history, Byrd, 87, comes to work each day with a tiny leather-bound copy of the Constitution in his left breast pocket. "I've forgotten more about the rules and procedures," Byrd said in an interview last week, "than most senators will ever know."

Lawmakers return to Washington tomorrow after a two-week recess, and the Senate is headed for a showdown over a Republican-led drive to end the minority Democrats' use of the filibuster in blocking President Bush's judicial nominees.

Byrd, the senior senator from West Virginia, is front and center in that fight, carrying the banner for his party and at the same time drawing the ire of conservatives outraged by his vocal defense of the filibuster.

Republicans hope to end judicial filibusters by changing Senate rules to prevent them - a move so explosive it has been dubbed "the nuclear option." Byrd, invoking Senate tradition and his beloved Constitution, is railing against it, drawing charges of hypocrisy from Republicans who say that when he was leader, he initiated some artful rules changes of his own.

"Such a sweet old man," Sen. Rick Santorum said sardonically in an interview. Santorum, the Pennsylvania Republican who ranks third in his party's leadership, went on: "Facts are facts, and the fact is Senator Byrd has singularly used this tactic more than any other leader in the United States Senate. To come in and feign outrage over a technique of which he was the master is even a little much for senators to swallow."

The fight has made Byrd, currently the longest-serving member of the Senate, an unlikely cult hero among liberals and an object of derision among conservatives in the twilight of his political career. He is up for re-election in 2006, and though he has not yet formally said whether he will run ("I'm inclined to," is as far as he will go), Republicans are already working to unseat him.

Christian conservatives and right-wing bloggers are unearthing his past as a one-time member of the Ku Klux Klan who filibustered the Civil Rights Act of 1964. ("I've said time and time again that I was wrong about that and I apologize," Byrd said.) The National Republican Senatorial Committee is sending out a steady stream of "Byrd watching" news releases. "Robert Byrd Flies Off the Deep End," declared one. "Robert's Rules of Order: Do as I Say, Not as I Did," blared another. And Republicans are decrying a recent speech by Byrd, in which he invoked Hitler to assail the nuclear option.

Byrd began brushing up on the Senate's rules decades ago, when some of his colleagues were barely out of diapers. He was encouraged, he said, by his mentor, Sen. Richard B. Russell Jr. of Georgia. "He said, `Don't just study the rules, study the precedents,'" Byrd recalled.

So Byrd did - a move that came in handy in 1977, when as Democratic leader he helped close a loophole that had allowed Republicans effectively to filibuster legislation by offering an endless stream of amendments. Republicans say Byrd used procedures to limit debate on three other occasions, though he says he never once "deprived the minority" of "the right to freedom of speech."

While Republicans are holding Byrd as an emblem for inconsistency, Democrats are rallying around him. "He's the Senate's encyclopedia," said Sen. Harry Reid, the Democratic leader.

When Byrd takes the Senate floor, voice quavering, finger wagging, words like "escutcheon" dripping from his lips, the chamber steps back in time. He quotes Popeye and Plato with equal ease.

At a rally several weeks ago, Byrd delivered a hellfire-and-brimstone speech that was part religious revival, part civics lesson.

"These instant constitutional experts want to warp, want to bend, if you will, the Senate's constitutional purpose with a witch's brew of half-truths, twisted logic and vicious attacks on freedom of speech," the senator thundered, wagging his finger and waving his copy of the Constitution in the air. "Why? Because they don't like the rules! They want to change the rules so they can pack the courts!"

The crowd swooned like schoolgirls catching their first glimpse of the Beatles, and the senator seemed to relish every minute. But political analysts say getting the rock-star reception from the MoveOn set could backfire for Byrd in West Virginia, where President Bush won last November's election by 13 percentage points.

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