After fifty-one years in the Senate and six years in the House, Robert Byrd, our longest serving member of Congress, has died. Because of his longevity, Sen. Byrd embodied the changes and evolution of the Democratic Party. Elected as a New Deal conservative Democrat, he is probably still most famous for his energetic opposition to equal rights for black Americans. He once formed a Ku Klux Klan klavern and was elected its leader. He filibuster the Civil Rights Act of 1964 for fourteen hours. Yet, he voted for the Civil Rights Act of 1968 and endorsed Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton in the 2008 primary.

Mr. Byrd’s perspective on the world changed over the years. He filibustered against the 1964 Civil Rights Act and supported the Vietnam War only to come to back civil rights measures and criticize the Iraq war. Rating his voting record in 1964, Americans for Democratic Action, the liberal lobbying group, found that his views and the organization’s were aligned only 16 percent of the time. In 2005, he got an A.D.A. rating of 95.

Byrd served as Senate Majority Leader during the Carter administration and the last years of the Reagan administration. He is almost solely responsible for building the modern West Virginia through his mastery of the appropriations process. Known as the ‘King of Pork,’ he was never apologetic about bringing home the bacon. He was also the unofficial Senate historian and a self-educated scholar of the Classics.

Because West Virginia has a Democratic governor, we will not lose this seat. At least, we will not lose it immediately. Nate Silver explains:

Byrd’s current term expires on January 3, 2013. Under West Virginia state law on handling Senate vacancies, “if the vacancy occurs less than two years and six months before the end of the term, the Governor appoints someone to fill the unexpired term and there is no election”. Otherwise, Manchin would appoint an interim replacement, and an special election would be held in November to determine who held the seat in 2011 and 2012.

In other words, we are within a week of the threshold established by West Virginia law. If a vacancy were to be declared on July 3rd or later, there would not be an election to replace Byrd until 2012. If it were to occur earlier, there could potentially be an election later this year, although there might be some ambiguities arising from precisely when and how the vacancy were declared.

I don’t think there is any law compelling Governor Manchin to declare a vacancy in the next week, but I haven’t reviewed the legislation to be sure of that.

But that’s for tomorrow. Today, let’s remember a faithful servant at his best.

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