After 51 years representing West Virginia, Sen. Robert C. Byrd on Thursday commanded the attention of the Senate for a final few hours even in death.
The 92-year-old senator’s body was escorted onto the floor of Congress’s upper chamber by a six-man honor guard as planned at 10 a.m., and by early afternoon had attracted a stream of several thousand visitors — friends, congressional colleagues, aides, staffers and public well-wishers.
It was the first time a late senator had lain in repose in the Senate since 1959. Senate business ground to a halt as scheduled, with even committee hearings far off the floor canceled until the departure of the senator's body for West Virginia at 4 p.m. The long list of cancellations included the Judiciary Committee confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan.
Many dignitaries and senators streamed by Byrd’s casket during a private opening ceremony which included brief remarks from Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonGOP political operatives indicted over illegal campaign contribution from Russian national in 2016 Clinton lawyer's indictment reveals 'bag of tricks' Attorney charged in Durham investigation pleads not guilty MORE. President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaDems punch back over GOP holdup of Biden SBA nominee Biden congratulates Trudeau for winning third term as Canadian prime minister Republicans have moral and financial reasons to oppose raising the debt ceiling MORE and Vice President BidenJoe BidenUN meeting with US, France canceled over scheduling issue Schumer moves to break GOP blockade on Biden's State picks GOP Rep. Cawthorn likens vaccine mandates to 'modern-day segregation' MORE are also scheduled to be in Charleston, W. Va. for Byrd's home-state memorial service.
Senate Chaplain Barry Black paid tribute to Byrd during the morning ceremony, saluting the longest-serving member of Congress’s love for the chamber.
“We thank you for giving us the gift of Sen. Robert Carlyle Byrd,” Black said. “Lord, we appreciate his wit and wisdom, his stories and music, as well as his indefatiguable commitment to the principles of freedom that make America great. Thank you for blessing us with his passion for history and his willingness to challenge conventional wisdom in his quest to keep our nation strong.”
In a dimmed Senate chamber, Byrd’s closed casket was laid before the presiding officer’s desk, in a semi-circular area known as the well. Covered in a U.S. flag, the casket was flanked by two guards from the Arlington cemetery where Byrd is to be interred next week. Two large floral wreaths also flanked the rear of the casket.
Staffers filed in silently, arranged in a semi-circle facing the well and stood for about a minute each. Some held their hands clasped, while others fought back tears and some made the sign of the cross. When the chamber was first opened, a line of perhaps one thousand Senate staffers stretched down to the first floor where Byrd’s office was, winding down several corridors.
The occasion even attracted staffers who never knew Byrd, such as Senate Commerce Committee staffer Michael Conathan.
“It’s the passing of a legend,” Conathan said. “You don’t get a chance to pay your respects like this very often here, and it seemed the least I could do.”
Byrd’s second-row, aisle-side desk remained draped in a black cloth, per Senate custom, with a clear glass vase of white roses sitting on top. A photograph was allowed of the occasion — the first time still photography had been allowed in the chamber in many years. Senate cameras were dark in deference to the family’s wishes that the occasion not be televised on C-SPAN.
In the upper galleries, a steady stream of tourists and Capitol visitors also sat silently. The audience included Barbara Benko Collins of Norton, Va., who met Byrd 50 years ago when he came to a Democratic fund-raiser in Appalachia, Va., and played the fiddle.
“It’s a great loss,” Collins said of her reasons for coming Thursday. “I loved the way he stood up for what he believed in.”
Dozens of members of Congress were still streaming by the chamber on Thursday afternoon, including longtime friends of Byrd such as Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.). Dodd sat next to Byrd for 25 years and was standing with him when Dodd’s father, Thomas Dodd, was first sworn into the House of Representatives in 1953 and into the Senate in 1959.
“It was a life well- and fully-lived, with a huge contribution to the country,” Dodd told The Hill. “He was the sustaining voice for the role of the Senate through all of its viscissitudes and day-to-day troubles, and there was no greater defender of the Constitution or of the Senate. He really reflected the growth of America in the 20th Century and the first part of the 21st. As America changed, he changed and acknowledged shortcomings as all of us must do, and was just a remarkable person.”
Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), upon emerging from paying his own respects, called Byrd “a great American story.”
“He was born into poverty, but it didn’t matter,” Lieberman said to The Hill. “He had God-given talents, and he worked hard and had confidence in the beginning that there was no limit to how far he could go. And of course he did, all the way to the top of American life.”
At exactly 4 p.m. on schedule, Byrd's casket was escorted from the Senate the same way it entered six hours before, with an honor guard and a reverent audience of Congressional members, aides, staffers, press and public.
Outside the Capitol's East steps facing the Supreme Court, the casket was loaded back into a hearse as a modest, but reverentially silent crowd of on-lookers watched. Then the hearse rolled out onto Constitution Avenue, bound for Andrews Air Force Base, where a plane will take the senator's remains to Charleston, W.Va. late Thursday afternoon.