Senator Robert Byrd Elected as Minority Leader

Senator Byrd rose from the hardscrabble hollows of West Virginia to spend 12 years as Senate Democratic leader.

He was majority leader from 1977 to 1981 and again from 1987 to 1989, and minority leader from 1981 to 1987. At the time of his death, he was president pro tempore of the Senate and had been in frail health for several months.

Despite pressure from conservative organizations and overwhelmingly negative constituent mail, Mr. Byrd, working with Senator Howard H. Baker Jr., the Republican leader, won ratification of both treaties in 1978 by separate votes of 68 to 32 — the required two-thirds majority of 67, plus a vote to spare.

The canal issue cost the Democrats enough seats in the next two elections to give the Republicans a majority and relegate Mr. Byrd to minority leader in 1981. Six years later, the Democrats rebounded and Mr. Byrd’s position as majority leader was restored.

But after the 1988 elections, Senate Democrats replaced him with someone they thought would make a better spokesman on television — Senator George J. Mitchell of Maine.

He used his legislative skills to save Carter's foreign policy initiatives from certain defeat. He broadened support for the administration's proposal to withdraw U.S. troops from South Korea by introducing a compromise amendment that ensured congressional participation in the final plan. He also smoothed passage of the controversial Panama Canal treaties.

He continued as minority leader from 1981 to 1987 and served a second term as majority leader in 1987-88. "Once the Democrats lost their majority, they were looking for something else, someone who could put together an agenda and speak effectively for what they wanted to do," said Mann of the Brookings Institution. "They didn't want (Byrd) being their public representative."

In 1989, Byrd became chairman of the Appropriations Committee and soon proclaimed, "I want to be West Virginia's billion-dollar industry." He succeeded.