Death marks end of an era

The death of Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) on Monday is likely to have broad repercussions on a range of issues, from Wall Street regulation and climate change to the appropriations process and filibuster reform.

On the Wall Street reform conference report set for a Senate vote this week, Byrd’s death deprives Democrats of a key vote on an issue where they have little margin for error. On climate change, Democrats lose a swing vote whose loyalty to his home state’s coal industry had been tested in recent years.

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Byrd’s mastery of the Senate’s history and rules, including the filibuster, will be missed as the body looks to reform procedures that have been vilified this year by critics on the left.

Nowhere will Byrd’s absence be more profound than on the Senate Appropriations Committee.

While his death opens up a valuable committee position and could set off a battle between Sens. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) and Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) for the Homeland Security subcommittee chairmanship, the loss of Congress’s most forceful voice for the so-called “power of the purse” will be the more meaningful one.

Byrd will be missed during any debate over the filibuster, though the senator’s absence could be a boon for those advocating reform.

Unlike many of his Democratic colleagues in the Senate who were frustrated when Republicans used the filibuster repeatedly to block health reform, Byrd was a strong opponent of changing the 60-vote threshold — right up until one of his last speeches this month.



“I pray that senators will pause and reflect before ignoring that history and tradition in favor of the political priority of the moment,” Byrd said in the speech, which called the Senate “the last fortress of minority rights and freedom of speech in this republic for more than two centuries.”


“We must never, ever tear down the only wall — the necessary fence — this nation has against the excesses of the executive branch and the resultant haste and tyranny of the majority,” he said. “A true filibuster is a fight, not a threat or a bluff.”

 The most immediate policy issue for Democrats is the Wall Street reform conference report set for a vote as early as Tuesday in the House and later this week in the Senate.

Democrats need 60 votes to pass the conference report, and only 57 Democrats, including Byrd, voted for the Senate bill.

Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), who voted against the Senate’s financial legislation, on Monday said he wouldn’t support the final conference report because it lacked “strong reforms.”

It’s unclear whether Sen. Maria Cantwell (Wash.), the other Democrat who voted no in May, will change her position on the conference report.

Democrats won four Republican votes on the earlier Senate bill, but all of those votes are uncertain on the conference report.

Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) voted to end Senate debate on Wall Street reform and supported the Senate bill after receiving assurances that his concerns on the “Volcker rule” restricting proprietary trading by banks would be taken up in the conference.

But he has expressed disappointment at the final bill that passed through the conference committee. If he votes against the legislation in the Senate, Democrats will need to hold the rest of the votes they had in May and swing either Cantwell or another Republican to advance the bill.

West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin (D) will appoint a successor to Byrd who will serve until the 2012 election, West Virginia’s secretary of state announced on Monday. Manchin’s appointee would be likely to support the Wall Street conference report, though any delays in moving to a vote will make supporters nervous.

On climate change, however, it’s less certain that the new senator will back President Barack Obama.

Manchin has been a strong opponent of cap-and-trade bills and also opposes allowing the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate greenhouse gases under its current powers.

Byrd, while a longstanding ally of his state’s coal industry, has in recent years moved to the left on climate to become a swing vote on a global warming bill. He penned an op-ed late last year noting that “some form of climate legislation” will likely become law and that the industry and state must “anticipate change and adapt to it, or resist and be overrun by it.”

One of Byrd’s last votes, cast June 10, was against Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s (R-Alaska) failed resolution to block EPA climate change rules. He split with Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), who backed Murkowski’s plan. Rockefeller has also called for the Senate to abandon climate legislation this year.

“Over the last year, Sen. Byrd seemed increasingly inclined to accept some climate change proposals,” said Scott Segal, a lobbyist for Bracewell & Giuliani who represents power companies and refiners.

“It is likely that any replacement for Sen. Byrd, even on a temporary basis, may adhere more closely to the line taken by Sen. Rockefeller, particularly as it concerns potential adverse effects of climate policy on the West Virginia economy,” Segal added.

Other analysts made a similar point.

“We strongly doubt that any interim successor named by Gov. Manchin will endorse green energy, climate policy or constraints on fossil energy extraction,” the energy consulting firm ClearView Energy Partners predicted Monday.