Sen. Robert C. Byrd becomes the longest-serving member of the U.S. Senate today, having represented West Virginians for 17,327 days in the chamber.
Byrd began serving in the Senate more than 47 years ago, on Jan. 3, 1959, after spending six years in the House of Representatives and six years in the West Virginia Legislature.
He also has cast more votes by far than any member of the Senate: 17,662 times, as of last Friday.
"I consider him to be the pillar of the Senate," says Sen. Paul Sarbanes, D-Md. "His commitment to the United States Senate and its history, customs and procedures is equaled only by his commitment to the state of West Virginia, our nation and our Constitution."
Byrd's impact on fellow senators personally rivals his institutional role, some of his colleagues said.
"Senator Byrd has been a very, very important figure in my life," said Sen. John Warner, a Virginia Republican. "He is such a magnificent teacher of the history the Senate."
Warner recalls a conversation he had with Byrd when Warner was new to the Senate. "He said, 'At one time, our states were together. I don't want to put them back together, but I want to work together as full and equal partners,'" Warner said.
"I enjoy the man," Warner said. "He is wonderful."
Up to now, the Senate's longest-serving member had been the late Strom Thurmond, R-S.C. The third- and fourth-longest-serving members are Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., and Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hawaii, both of whom have been there more than 43 years.
"Byrd epitomizes the role that the framers of our Constitution envisioned for the legislative branch," Sarbanes said.
In fact, The Almanac of American Politics, a widely consulted volume on federal politics, describes Byrd as the politician who "may come closer to the kind of senator the Founding Fathers had in mind than any other."
Since President Bush took office, Byrd has been one of the Senate's leading voices on challenging the war in Iraq, preserving Social Security and protecting workers' jobs and safety.
Despite his strong positions, however, Byrd said he regrets the increasing animosity in both legislative bodies. He said he has always worked to be bipartisan.
"I thank the people of West Virginia for having repeatedly expressed their faith in me," Byrd said. "I never lose sight of that. Every morning of every day of my life, my first thought is, 'What can I do today for West Virginia?'"
Byrd's contribution to the state has been immense, said Gov. Joe Manchin and members of West Virginia's congressional delegation.
"I don't know of a person in West Virginia who has not been touched, or benefited in a most positive way, by Senator Byrd's service," Manchin said. "I mean, Democrats, Republicans, independents and people who don't vote - they all benefit."
Byrd has long been known as a "legend" in West Virginia, said Jay Rockefeller, Byrd's junior Democratic colleague for the state. "But now he has surpassed even the great legends of the Senate to become the longest serving senator in U.S. history."