By Jim Abrams
Associated Press Writer
The Senate bid farewell Thursday to Robert C. Byrd, the homespun West Virginian who for half a century held sway with his thunderous oratory and fierce advocacy of his state and the Senate he loved.
Byrd, who died Monday at age 92, lay in repose on the Senate floor for six hours while senators, both past and present, and Capitol Hill staffers lined up to pay their final respects to the late senator and his family.
Byrd’s hearse then left for Andrews Air Force Base in suburban Maryland for a flight to Charleston, W.Va. There is to be an overnight public viewing in the rotunda of the state capitol, followed by a memorial service in Charleston Friday led by President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden.
Private services are scheduled for Tuesday at Columbia Gardens Cemetery in Arlington, Va., where Byrd will be buried next to his wife of almost seven decades, Erma.
Byrd entered the Senate in 1959, concurrent with Alaska becoming a state. He served longer, and cast more votes — 18,689 — than any senator in history. He twice rose to become Senate majority leader and, because of his seniority, was the Senate president pro tempore, putting him third in line for the presidency behind the vice president and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Byrd, who grew up in impoverished coal country in a home without indoor plumbing, was also known for funneling billions of federal dollars into West Virginia, where the senator’s name adorns numerous highways, bridges and buildings.
But it was his love of the Senate, with its history and traditions and arcane rules, that drove the decision to commemorate him on the Senate floor, rather than in the Capitol’s Rotunda where other prominent figures lie in state or in honor.
A military honor guard carried Byrd’s casket up the Capitol steps, past the senator’s portrait in a lobby and into the Senate chamber, where lawmakers and others, many not born when he first entered the Senate, lined up to pay tribute before the flag-draped casket.
The Senate, said fellow West Virginia Democrat Jay Rockefeller, “was his place where he ruled and, you know, had all of his great moments. So it was very somber and that’s the way it should have been.”
Byrd’s casket was resting on the Lincoln Catafalque, a bier that was built for the coffin of Abraham Lincoln.
It was a homecoming of sorts for some mourners. Former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle and other past colleagues, including Don Nickles of Oklahoma, Charles Robb of Virginia, Bob Kerrey of Nebraska and Alan Simpson of Wyoming, conversed with current senators. One of the first in line was Hillary Rodham Clinton, the senator from New York before she became secretary of State.
Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., recalled the advice Byrd gave her after her election in 1986 when she asked how she could best succeed in the Senate. “Stay loyal to the Constitution, stay loyal to the constituents, and do what I tell ya” he replied.
Byrd is the second political great the Senate has lost in the past year, following the death last August of Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts. Kennedy was elected in 1962, three years after Byrd entered the Senate.
Kennedy’s last motorcade took him to the steps of the Senate, where members of his staff and lawmakers gathered to pay their final respects, before moving on to Arlington Cemetery.
Byrd’s hearse arrived at those same steps Thursday, where it was met by the Democratic senator’s staff and about two dozen members of his family.
It is fairly common in recent years for people of national import to lie in state or in honor in the Rotunda, the great hall in the center of the Capitol. Former Presidents Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford were honored in the Rotunda in 2004 and early 2007, and civil rights leader Rosa Parks in 2005.
But while 45 people, including 19th-century Senate greats such as John C. Calhoun, Henry Clay and Charles Sumner, were commemorated on the Senate floor after their deaths, the last to lie in repose in the Senate was William Langer of North Dakota in 1959.
-- Associated Press writer Ann Sanner contributed to this report.