WASHINGTON — Sen. Robert C. Byrd became history's longest-serving member of Congress on Wednesday, earning a formal salute from the Senate and President Barack Obama for his nearly 57 years of service.
"I've loved every precious minute of it," the frail West Virginia Democrat, who turns 92 on Friday, said during a day of floor tributes to him, and moments before the Senate passed a resolution marking the milestone.
Obama earlier in the day described the one-time segregationist as a touchstone for constitutional values and a role model to all lawmakers.
"Countless colleagues, myself included, have looked to him for advice, guidance and leadership over the years," Obama, who represented Illinois in the Senate, said in a statement. "He is one of the most steadfast defenders of the United States Constitution, and he never lets us forget the guiding values and principles that make our nation great."
As Tuesday became Wednesday, Byrd shattered the record for congressional service that had been set by Carl Hayden, D-Ariz., who served in the House and Senate from 1912 to 1969. Byrd began his career in Washington in 1952 with his election to the House, and his elevation six years later to the Senate.
"Because of those wonderful people in West Virginia, this foster son of an impoverished coal miner from the great hills of southern West Virginia has had the opportunity to walk with kings, to meet with prime ministers, and to debate with presidents," Byrd said.
He wept a few minutes later as he named his only regret - that his wife Erma, who died in 2006, was not there.
"But I know, yes I do," Byrd said tearfully, pointing a finger to the sky, "that she's smiling down from Heaven and reminding me not to get a big head."
Republicans were in their weekly health care meeting during Byrd's big moment, unaware that he was speaking or of the impending resolution vote, said a spokesman for Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah was the first Republican to rush in as the three dozen Democrats assembled rose in a final standing ovation. McConnell, who had saluted Byrd's "astonishing" record of service in a floor speech earlier in the day, was next, followed by Republican Whip Jon Kyl of Arizona. All offered their congratulations and joined the line to shake Byrd's hand.
Byrd is accustomed to setting records.
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.
"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.
Byrd has served long enough for him to rescind positions that he once trumpeted, such as his opposition to the 1964 Civil Rights Act. He has voiced regret about joining the Ku Klux Klan a lifetime ago. He lived 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.
Byrd remains 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.
Though he no longer chairs the Appropriations Committee, he does head up a 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.
On the Net:
Sen. Robert Byrd: http://byrd.senate.gov