Former Sen. Harry Byrd, 98, Dies

Lawmaker fought for balanced budgets and segregation.

Sen. Harry Byrd, D-Va., poses in his Capitol Hill office after announcing Feb. 25, 1958, that he would seek a fifth 6-year term in the Senate.

Sen. Harry Byrd poses in his Capitol Hill office after announcing Feb. 25, 1958, that he would seek a fifth 6-year term in the Senate. The oldest living former senator, Byrd died Tuesday at the age of 98.

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Former Sen. Harry Byrd, I-Va., once said getting elected as an independent is the hardest way to make it to the U.S. Senate, but if you can get to the Capitol that way, it's the best way to serve.

"You're totally free of obligations to anybody," Byrd told the Associated Press. "You don't have to follow a party line."

Byrd died Tuesday morning at the age of 98. He was the oldest living former senator. Byrd started his political career as a state senator and as a Democrat. He was appointed to the U.S. Senate in 1965 to take over his father's seat. He served until 1983.

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He served more than 17 years in the Senate all along championing a bill to balance the federal budget. But segregation, more so than perhaps anything else, came to define his career. As a state senator serving in Richmond, he worked against desegregation in Virginia public schools, encouraging many to close rather than open their doors to black students. When in the U.S. Senate, he voted against the Voting Rights Act.


Byrd may have entered politics as a Democrat, but he paved the way for future lawmakers when he became an independent in 1970. He said he already was moving away from the liberal agenda of the Democratic Party, but when the party told him he had to support only Democratic candidates, even those he didn't know, he bolted . Byrd refused to sign such a pledge and became one of the first lawmakers to win a seat in the Senate without the support of either party. 

Despite his streak to run as an independent, he continued to caucus with Democrats throughout his tenure in the Senate.

"The party insisted I depend on them," Byrd said in an interview with the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review last year. "I depended on the voters' common sense."

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Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who served with Byrd, remembers the former senator used to always help out with his re-election campaigns. 

"He was one of my dearest friends. He always sent money for my re-election," Hatch says. "We were extremely close. He would sit down with me and chat with me. He used to vote with me on a lot of issues I felt deeply about."

Hatch remembers Byrd loved socializing and was the one of the longest serving members of the Alfalfa Club, an elite Washington social organization that exists solely to host a banquet every January.

"Every time they introduced him we all went crazy because he was such a great guy," Hatch says. "I love the man, and I just hope there is a special place in heaven for him."

A handful of colleagues from both sides of the aisle who served with him in the Senate, including Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., all used the exact same word to describe their former colleague – courteous.

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"I got handwritten notes from him on different things I did after he had left the Senate. He kept in touch with me and sent me notes of congratulations," Leahy says. "He always seemed a lot younger than he was."

In his later years, Byrd returned to Virginia and taught at Shenandoah University. He remained in the public eye and made political endorsements that scrambled political lines. While he supported Sen. Mark Warner. D-Va., he endorsed Republican Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential race.

When asked about commentary that the gridlock in Washington and the bitterness within Congress was at its peak in 2012, Byrd replied "I guess they never heard of the '60s -- in both centuries."

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