Byrd takes flight



Before we inevitably speculate on whether Robert Byrd's death will give the Republicans an opportunity to pick up his West Virginia Senate seat, let's first bid farewell to a rare Byrd indeed, a guy who was virtually orphaned 91 years ago at the age of one in coal country - and who wound up serving the longest U.S. Senate stint in history, mastering the arcane rules of the chamber like no other, lecturing extemporaneously about ancient Rome, bringing home roughly a billion bucks in federal pork, and casting a record 18,500 votes during a career that incrementally inched leftward.

Byrd, who died at 3 a.m. this morning, lived a life that spanned the modern American experience. A member of the Ku Klux Klan in his youth (even in his late twenties, he lamented in a letter that "this beloved land of ours" might become "degraded by race mongrels"), he endorsed a black man for president when he was 90. A conservative Democrat who had long swore fealty to the coal industry back home, he recently endorsed the view that greenhouse gas emissions pose a threat to public health. A one-time hawk who gave presidents a blank check to wage war in Vietnam, he morphed into a dove at the dawn of the Iraq war, denouncing the Bush team's "secrecy and arrogance," and insisting that our values, as spelled out in the Constitution, "do not include striking first at other countries."

But maybe this is the best way to measure the arc of Byrd's career: When he was first sworn in as a senator in January 1959, a gallon of gas was 25 cents, the Hula Hoop was a new fad among the youngsters, color TV was a luxury item, the oral contraceptive pill was a rumor for most women, and The Beatles were known as The Quarry Men.

There will be many testaments to his longevity in the days ahead, and his unique mix of traits will be feted as well (how many other contemporary senators have quoted Henry David Thoreau from memory? or played bluegrass on a fiddle?), but, inevitably, attention soon will be focused on what happens next with a Senate seat that has been freed up for the first time since Dwight Eisenhower lived in the White House and Richie Ashburn patrolled center field for the Phillies.

The short answer is that the Democrats will keep the vacated Byrd seat, at least for a while. The governor of West Virginia, Joe Manchin, is a Democrat; under state election law, he appoints a new senator. And some Democrat will fill it sooner rather than later, if only as a temporary caretaker, because President Obama needs every possible vote in order to ensure final Senate passage of Wall Street financial reform.

The long answer, however, is a lot of more complicated - thanks to some apparently contradictory language in West Virginia's election law. Basically, it's unclear whether Byrd's immediate successor (perhaps Nick Casey, currently the state Democratic chairman) would serve only for a few months (because a special election might be necessary this November), or until November 2012 (when Byrd's term would have ended anyway). The GOP, which is eying the seat, would obviously prefer an election this November.

State law decrees that if a Senate seat opens up more than two and a half years before the term ends, a special election must be conducted in the first available November. And it just so happens that Byrd died with two years, six months, and five days remaining in his term. So this means that the Republicans will get a whack at the seat this November, right?

Not necessarily. Because the West Virginia law also states that a special election can only be scheduled after a Senate candidate "has been nominated at the primary election next." And it just so happens that "the primary election next" is set for the spring of 2012. Which apparently means the special election would have to be staged in November of that year.

Nobody knows how Manchin, a popular governor, will choose to play this issue; if he decides that no special election will be held until November '12, he might even opt to appoint himself to the seat (although today he said no). But the Republicans presumably wouldn't sit still for that distant timetable. Given the fact that they have a Senate candidate all set to go - that would be West Virginia congresswoman Shelley Moore Capito - I wouldn't be surprised if the GOP files a legal challenge, arguing that the state law requires a special election this the midst of a political climate favorable to the GOP.

Once the mandatory mourning period is over, once all the accolades to Byrd are exhausted, the fierce political maneuvering will begin. I doubt we'll wait long. Like, maybe 48 hours.