WASHINGTON — Robert C. Byrd, the longest serving member of the U.S. Senate, a fiery orator and hard-charging power broker who steered billions of federal dollars to his beloved West Virginia, died Monday. He was 92.
A spokesman for the family, Jesse Jacobs, said that Byrd died peacefully at about 3 a.m. at Inova Hospital in Fairfax, Va. He had been in the hospital since late last week.
At first Byrd was believed to be suffering from heat exhaustion and severe dehydration, but other medical conditions developed. He had been in frail health for several years.
A man of humble, Depression-era upbringing, Byrd held his seat for over 50 years, working tirelessly all that time to make sure his state never missed out on its share — or even more, in some cases — of the federal largesse. He was the Senate's majority leader for six of those years and was third in the line of succession to the presidency, behind House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Flags at the Capitol and the White House flew at half-staff Monday as Washington mourned Byrd's passing. Byrd's desk in Senate chamber was draped in black.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller, a fellow West Virginian in the Senate, said it was his "greatest privilege" to serve with Byrd.
"I looked up to him, I fought next to him, and I am deeply saddened that he is gone," Rockefeller said.
The Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, said Byrd "combined a devotion to the U.S. Constitution with a deep learning of history to defend the interests of his state and the traditions of the Senate."
"We will remember him for his fighter's spirit, his abiding faith, and for the many times he recalled the Senate to its purposes," McConnell said.
Former President Jimmy Carter said Byrd "was my closest and most valuable adviser" during his presidency, when Byrd served as Senate majority leader. Byrd was skilled "in using arcane Senate rules to achieve his goals, and was proud of his ability to count votes and forge prevailing coalitions," Carter said in a statement.
West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin, a Democrat, will appoint Byrd's replacement. For a declared vacancy more than two years and six months before the expiration of a senator's term — Byrd's term was to end Jan. 3, 2013 — the appointee serves until an election is held to fill the rest of the term.
Manchin issued a statement Monday saying Byrd "was a fearless fighter for the Constitution, his beloved state and its great people." He told The Associated Press that he will not appoint himself to fill the seat, and had no timetable for naming a replacement.
Byrd's death followed less than a year after the passing of venerable Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, a nationally recognizable figure who had been a most vociferous spokesman for liberal causes for years.
In comportment and style, Byrd often seemed a Senate throwback to a courtlier 19th century. He could recite poetry, quote the Bible, discuss the Constitutional Convention and detail the Peloponnesian Wars — and frequently did in Senate debates.
Yet there was nothing particularly courtly about Byrd's pursuit or exercise of power.
Byrd was a master of the Senate's bewildering rules and longtime chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, which controls a third of the $3 trillion federal budget. He was willing to use both to reward friends and punish those he viewed as having slighted him.
"Bob is a living encyclopedia, and legislative graveyards are filled with the bones of those who underestimated him," former House Speaker Jim Wright, D-Texas, once said in remarks Byrd later displayed in his office.
In 1971, Byrd ousted Kennedy, the Massachusetts senator, as the Democrats' second in command. He was elected majority leader in 1976 and held the post until Democrats lost control of the Senate four years later. He remained his party's leader through six years in the minority, then spent another two years as majority leader.
Byrd stepped aside as majority leader in 1989 when Democrats sought a more contemporary television spokesman. "I ran the Senate like a stern parent," Byrd wrote in his memoir, "Child of the Appalachian Coalfields." His consolation price was the chairmanship of the Appropriations Committee, with control over almost limitless federal spending.