By Walter Alarkon, Silla Brush & Ben Geman - 06/29/10 12:41 AM EDT
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.
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
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.