In assembling their 60-vote super-majority needed to proceed with healthcare reform, Democrats in the Senate had to secure the presence (such as it was) of Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.V.), who was wheeled into the chamber to cast his vote. Byrd is 92. “When he comes onto the floor and the members cheer and his face lights up, it just makes our day,” Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) told the New York Times.
I wonder if Schumer would be so sunny if it were President Byrd being wheeled into the Oval Office. Yet as president pro tempore of the Senate, the nonagenarian former Ku Klux Klansman is third in line for the presidency. If a ceiling were to drop on Barack Obama, Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi -- a scenario at the heart of the political thriller "The Man" -- Byrd would be plotting the U.S. response to terrorism and the burgeoning federal debt. Or not.
It's outrageous that Byrd is in the on-deck spot but two for the presidency. The issue isn't age -- Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens is 89 and his questions from the bench remain pointed and probing -- but infirmity. As the comparatively youthful (85) Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.) delicately put it: "We see someone who is a giant and who is not as well as we would like to see him."
A ceiling isn't likely to drop on an Obama-Biden-Pelosi summit, but 9/11 shows that terrorists can target iconic government buildings. Their ultimate victory might be the installation in the Oval Office of a decrepit senator. So how did Byrd achieve this dubious distinction? Although the secretary of State used to be third in line, a law now on the books gives that spot to the president pro tem.
Whatever the wisdom of that rule -- I would argue that succession should remain in the executive branch -- seniority shouldn't determine who occupies that beauty spot. According to the Senate website: "In the early years, the Senate elected presidents pro tempore on a temporary basis, chosen for their personal characteristics, popularity, and reliability. Since the mid-20th century, it has been traditional for the Senate to elect the senior member of the majority party as president pro tempore."
This is a tradition that reflects pre-9/11 thinking. "President Harry Reid" doesn't trip lightly on the tongue, but "President Robert Byrd" is unthinkable.
Photo: Sen. Robert C. Byrd is wheeled to the Senate floor. Credit: Harry Hamburg / Associated Press
-- Michael McGough