Roll Call: War bill hearing seen as test of aging Sen. Byrd's fitness
Muriel Kane
Published: Wednesday April 16, 2008

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Update: The Appropriations Committee hearing began promptly at noon with Sen. Byrd presiding.

Veteran Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV) has been in failing health recently, and there is speculation that he might be replaced as chair of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee if he is unable to preside effectively over a hearing at noon today on the $108 billion Iraq War supplemental spending bill.

Byrd, who turned 90 last fall, was elected to the Senate 50 years ago this year. He is the oldest current member of Congress and the longest-serving Senator in history. However, he has been confined to a wheelchair since a fall in February, and the Washington Post reports that talk of replacing him came up last week at a meeting of Senate Democratic leaders.

Democrats hope to add riders to the Iraq War bill that would shorten military deployments in Iraq and outlaw the use of certain interrogation techniques. Byrd was the leading Senate critic of the invasion of Iraq in 2003, but there are concerns now about his fitness to handle the hearings and debate.

However, Democratic leaders are not prepared to remove him from the chairmanship against his will. Appropriations Committee member Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) told the (subscripiton-only) webiste Roll Call, "Questions have been raised primarily as rumor and speculation. ... We’re not going to have a coup here."

Another high-level Democrat suggested anonymously, "If he doesn’t handle the hearing very well, or at all, more and more people are going to be hoping he and his staff make the right decision."

Democratic sources indicated that Byrd's staff deliberately scheduled the hearing to show that Byrd still has the necessary stamina. Byrd's staff also insisted that he intends to take on the demanding task of managing debate on the bill in the full Senate.

"We’ll all be there to help," promised Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL), "all of the subcommittee chairs and other members of the committee. We want this done, and we want it done professionally, and we’re going to help the Senator in any way that he wants."

Update: In opening the hearing, Senator Byrd avoided addressing the concerns about his health directly, but he may have been offering an indirect reassurance when he referred to Sen. Arlen Specter's recent setback in his own battle against cancer and expressed full confidence in his successful recovery. At a later point, when told by one committee member, "it's good to see you here," Byrd replied simply, "It's good to see you here and all the others."

Byrd then began his opening statement by blasting the war in Iraq in classic form, saying that "over 4000 US service members have died. Dead, dead, dead. ... By the end of 2008, the war in Iraq will have cost a whopping -- did you hear that, whopping? -- six billion dollars."

Byrd then contrasted President Bush's spending on Iraq with his refusal to support the American economy, infrastructure, and needy families. "The president has thrown down the gauntlet," Byrd stated. "He threatens to veto the supplemental bill if Congress has the temerity -- do you hear that? -- to add one thin dime to his request."

Byrd concluded his opening statement by fulminating against Bush's demands for "more money to fund this dreadful, intolerable, hateful war in Iraq."

The full Roll Call story is available to subscribers here.