June 30, 2010


Chairman Charles E. Schumer

Remarks on the Passing of Senator Robert C. Byrd,

as prepared for delivery

June 30, 2010


Madam President, it is with deep sadness that I rise today to honor my colleague and friend, Senator Robert C. Byrd. The admiration that all of us in this body have for Senator Byrd is genuine and palpable. We already miss him dearly.

I know that I speak for the entire Senate when I say that our thoughts and prayers are with Senator Byrd's family as they mourn his passing.

No one loved the Senate more than Robert Byrd. He devoted his life to this august institution, and in doing so, became an institution himself. He is a legend, a man who embodied the best ideals of this body. And it is fitting that, on this day that we remember Senator Byrd, the Senate is undertaking one its most important Constitutionally-mandated responsibilities – the confirmation hearings for a Supreme Court Associate Justice.

You know, I am struck by the history of this moment. You read about the great Senators who served in this body – Webster, Clay, LaFollette, Wagner. I can't help but feel privileged to have served with a man whose name will go down in history beside those men as one the greatest in history.

On Thursday, Senator Byrd will make one final visit to this Senate chamber that he so loved.

There could be no more appropriate way for us to say goodbye to him and honor him than to yield the Senate floor to him one last time. Second only to his beloved West Virginia, this chamber was his home.

I'd like to share a few brief thoughts and reflect on Senator Byrd's service to the people of West Virginia and the nation.

The most important thing we should all remember about Robert Byrd is his life story, for it truly embodies the American dream. Because of his intelligence, his indefatigable energy, and up-by-the-boot-straps determination, Byrd rose from a childhood marred by abject poverty to being three heartbeats away from the Presidency.

Unlike many of the great men who preceded him, Senator Byrd didn't grow up as a member of a privileged class - he was an orphan raised in the Appalachian coal towns of West Virginia. He graduated from high school at 16 as the valedictorian, but like too many poor Americans, he couldn't afford college. So as a young member of Congress he worked his way through law school and, at age 46, he earned the diploma—with honors—that had eluded him in his youth.

The most striking memory that I have of Senator Byrd occurred in the wake of 9/11. Nearly ten years later, it is sometimes hard to remember just how dire and grim things were. New York City was devastated, physically and emotionally, and people wondered whether the City would ever again look like it once did.

Days after the planes flew into the Twin Towers, Robert Byrd came to me and then-Senator Clinton and said "Chuck, Hillary, I want you to consider me as the third Senator from the great State of New York." And like always, he lived up to his word and followed through. In the months and years ahead he helped us secure critical funding to help rebuild and renew New York.

Without a doubt New York City would not have been able to recover as quickly or as well as it did without his help. He showed a level of selflessness that is rarely seen and I think I can speak on behalf of myself, Secretary Clinton and the people of New York in saying how grateful we are to him.

I will also never forget Senator Byrd's testimony at the Rules Committee hearing I chaired about reforming the filibuster about a month ago. Senator Byrd was one of the best orators in the history of the Senate, and his statement at the Rules hearing did not disappoint. It was passionate, erudite, balanced and electrified the room. It's a moment no one who was there will ever forget.

There are few Senators in the history of this body who fought for their state as hard as Senator Byrd did. He never forgot his roots and he most certainly never forgot his fellow West Virginians. All across West Virginia men and women are able to realize the America dream because Robert Byrd fought for them. He was unrelenting and unapologetic in his desire to improve the lives of West Virginians by making generous investments in infrastructure and research. His efforts afforded generations of West Virginians good paying jobs, allowing them to provide for their families and have the dignity that all Americans deserve.

He fought to increase access to healthcare, ensure that all people in West Virginia had the right to vote, and he made sure that every child had the right to live up to his or her God-given potential through a quality education.

I can go on and on about Senator Byrd's legislative accomplishments, but I want to speak briefly about who he was as a person. He was someone who knew where he stood, but he also showed a profound willingness to evolve. And that's a sign of extraordinary character.

It is all too easy for an elected to official to plug his ears and say, "Sorry, that's my position, that's the way it's always been, and that's what it'll always be." But Senator Byrd was unafraid to take new arguments into consideration and expand his worldview accordingly.

What also struck me about him was his humility - the best example of which is probably his relationship with my dear friend Ted Kennedy, another legend in this body who is sorely missed.

Ted somewhat unexpectedly ran against Byrd to be the Democratic Whip in 1969 and won. Two years later, there was a rematch, and Senator Byrd became Whip. But later in their lives they established a deep, meaningful bond.

Senator Byrd, as sick as he was, was there outside the steps of the Capital to salute Ted Kennedy after he passed earlier this year. And it was Senator Byrd who provided a crucial vote to fulfill Ted Kennedy's life-long passion, comprehensive healthcare reform. As every Senator sat at their desk for the final passage vote, the clerk called the roll. When Senator Byrd's name was called, he raised his voice as loud as he could and declared, "Madam President, this is for my friend Ted Kennedy. AYE!"

Today those two friends, those two Senate legends, are together in heaven.

Robert Byrd, you will be remembered forever. You will be remembered as a man who loved this institution and guarded its history. You will be remembered as a man who always stood up for his state. You will be remembered a man who lived the American dream, and fought to make that dream a reality for countless others. Perhaps most of all, you will be remembered as a loving father, grandfather and husband.

Today the Senate mourns. The people of West Virginia mourn. The nation mourns.

Thank you. I yield the floor.