Speeches & Floor Statements

Floor Remarks of Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) -- Tribute to Sen. Robert C. Byrd

Posted on June 28, 2010

Mr. ALEXANDER. Mr. President, I see the Senator from Pennsylvania and I would ask through the Chair -- I plan to speak for about 5 minutes. Does that leave him time to make remarks?

The PRESIDING OFFICER. The Senator from Tennessee.

Mr. ALEXANDER. Mr.?President, in 1981, after a surprising election, the Republican leader, Howard Baker, became the majority leader of the Senate, and the Democratic leader, Robert C. Byrd, became the minority leader.

According to Senator Baker, he walked to Senator Byrd's office and said to him: Bob, I will never know the Senate rules as well as you do, so I will make you an offer. I will not surprise you if you will never surprise me.

Senator Byrd looked at Senator Baker and said: Let me think about it.

The next morning, Senator Byrd called Senator Baker and said: It is a deal. And that is the way they operated the Senate in those 4?years when Senator Baker was the majority leader and Senator Byrd was the minority leader. They operated the Senate during that time under an agreement where Senator Byrd was careful to try to give every Senator the right of amendment. He thought that was very important. In return, Senator Byrd was able to get unanimous consent agreements on amendments that many Senators thought were frivolous or unnecessary or not germane, which permitted him and Senator Baker to have a fairly orderly management of the Senate during that time.

Senator McConnell a few minutes ago talked about the time Senator Byrd reexamined the Constitution and changed his mind on the first amendment and flag burning. Senator
Byrd and Senator Baker during that time both read David McCullough's book and changed their minds on the Panama Canal Treaty, at great political cost to both of them. I bring this up today because I never saw Senator Byrd, after I was elected to the Senate a few years ago, when he did not ask me about his friend and colleague Howard Baker.

We will miss Senator Byrd's fiddling and his love of mountain music. He campaigned in Tennessee a long time ago for Albert Gore, Sr. who was running for the Senate and who also played the fiddle. Senator Byrd played the fiddle at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville and came back to Nashville in October of 2008 and sang along with a group of fiddlers who were playing songs at his request. I went over there with him. He knew all the songs and all the fiddlers knew him. A few days later I came to him on the Senate floor and talked to him about an old mountain song called "Wreck on the Highway" that Roy Acuff made famous in the 1930s or 1940s, and Senator Byrd began to sing the song -- he knew all the words?-- so loudly that the staff was afraid the galleries would all notice it.

We will miss his love of United States history, not just any United States history, but in his words "traditional American history." He was the sponsor of the Teaching Traditional American History Program, which is part of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. He has provided nearly $600?million to 1,000 local school districts to improve the professional development of American history teachers. He and the late Senator Kennedy and I were working on a piece of legislation which we have introduced to consolidate all the Federal programs that support the teaching of U.S. history, hoping that our children can grow up learning what it means to be an American.

Senator Byrd is also responsible for the celebration of September 17 as Constitution Day and Citizenship Day.

Senator Byrd had no time for revisionists who didn't believe America was exceptional. He believed this is one country, unified by a common language and a few principles. He did not want our country to become a United Nations, but always to be the United States of America. He wanted us to be proud of where we came from, but prouder to be American.

We will especially miss Senator Byrd's love of and understanding of the Senate. One of the most special occasions I ever experienced was the opportunity as a freshman Senator in 2003 to attend an indoctrination, one might say -- or orientation would be the proper description -- on what it means to be a Senator. Senator Byrd began by saying: "You are presently occupying what I consider to be hallowed ground."

I wish to ask unanimous consent to have printed in the Record following my remarks the remarks of Senator Byrd at the orientation of new Senators on December 3, 1996.

The PRESIDING OFFICER. Without objection, it is so ordered.

Mr. ALEXANDER. Senator Byrd served long enough to know that, as he put it: As long as the Senate retains the power to amend and the power of unlimited debate, the liberties of the people will remain secure.

He believed that when he was lecturing Republicans in 2005 who were trying to change the rules when there was a controversy about President Bush's appointees to the Federal judiciary, and he said the same thing to young Democrats who grew impatient this year and wanted to change the rules to limit unlimited amendment and unlimited debate.  

Perhaps his last Senate appearance was before the Rules Committee on May 19, 2010, where his opening statement on the filibuster and its consequences warned against a rules change.

I ask unanimous consent to have that statement printed in the Record following my remarks.

The PRESIDING OFFICER. Without objection, it is so ordered.

Mr. ALEXANDER. Mr. President, I was 12 years old when Senator Robert Byrd was elected to the House of Representatives. I was a senior in Maryville, TN, when he was elected to the Senate. When I came here as a Senate aide 42 years ago, he had just been elected to his second term and was working his way up the party leadership.

He was an imposing man. He had a wonderful photographic memory. But, after one got to know him especially, he was a kind man.

All of us can be replaced, but it is fair to say the Senate will never be the same place without Robert C. Byrd. 

I yield the floor.