WASHINGTON — West Virginia Sen. Robert C. Byrd became the longest-serving lawmaker in congressional history Wednesday, a milestone to be marked with a morning of Senate tributes and a special resolution.
"I look forward to serving you for the next 56 years and 320 days," Byrd said in a statement marking the occasion. His only regret, Byrd said, was that his late wife, Erma, was not there with him.
"I know that she is looking down from the heavens smiling at me and saying congratulations, my dear Robert — but don't let it go to your head," Byrd said.
It was unclear whether Byrd would be able to attend Wednesday's session.
Setting records is old news to the white-maned Democratic lawmaker, whose career in Washington began in 1952 with his election to the House and his elevation six years later to the Senate.
Since June 12, 2006, Byrd has been the longest-serving senator and later that year he was elected to an unprecedented ninth term. His colleagues have elected him to more leadership positions than any senator in history. He has cast more than 18,000 votes and, despite fragile health that has kept him from the Senate floor during much of this year, has a nearly 98 percent attendance record over the course of his career.
Which, by Byrd's count, has spanned 20,774 days. On Tuesday, Byrd's service tied the record set by Carl Hayden, D-Ariz., who served in the House, then the Senate, from 1912 to 1969.
"I am willing to risk predicting that many of the records set by Sen. Robert Byrd will never be passed," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., in the first of a series of floor tributes Wednesday.
The arc of Byrd's story is more complex than the numbers would suggest. It's been long enough for him to rescind positions that he once trumpeted, such as his opposition to the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Lengthy enough to voice his regret, over and over, about joining the Ku Klux Klan a lifetime ago. Long enough to see and cheer the nation's first black president and to watch his one-time rival and later dear friend, Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., succumb to brain cancer.
He's a champion of "earmarks" — pet project spending that critics also call "pork." He's helped bring home to West Virginia $326 million for 2008 alone, according to Citizens Against Government Waste.
Byrd's also been around enough to confound a monthslong whispering campaign that he was not well enough to continue serving as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. He stepped down only when he was ready but still chairs the panel's homeland security subcommittee. In October, after a season of illness and absence, Byrd personally managed a $44.1 billion spending agreement on security measures against natural disaster, terrorist attacks and other threats.
Friday is his 92nd birthday. And next week, Byrd writes in his weekly column, should be about Thanksgiving.
What does he give thanks for this year?
The privilege, he writes, of representing "our great people in the United States Senate."
Longer, of course, than anyone else.