WASHINGTON — Sen. Robert C. Byrd accumulated many things during his half-century in the Senate — immense power, a reputation for oratory and records for longevity notable among them. He also had a penchant for acquiring that most precious of Capitol commodities: real estate.
Like many veteran lawmakers, Byrd equated Capitol office space with prestige and influence. Over the years, he built a sprawling Appropriations Committee empire on the first floor of the Senate side of the Capitol amid the splendor of the frescoes painted by Constantino Brumidi. And the term "built" should be taken literally.
In 2003, during one of the many changes in party control he experienced, Byrd commandeered a Brumidi-adorned hallway and had additional quarters constructed after losing space when Democrats fell out of power. Byrd sometimes referred to his adjoining office, one of the first completed in the new Senate wing in 1859, as Elba because that is where he, like Napoleon, spent his exiles in the minority.
When Democrats bounced backed in 2006, he regained the chairmanship of the Appropriations Committee and his status as president pro tem of the Senate. Then Byrd and his sizable staff ruled over a fief that was the envy of territory-hungry lawmakers everywhere, before he stepped down from the committee post in 2008.
With Byrd’s death last Monday, the passing last year of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy and the imminent departure of other senior lawmakers, prime Capitol space will be again opening up. Senators and their top aides are — with all due respect, of course — already pondering whether to make a play for these top-tier versions of what are known as Senate "hideaway" offices.
"There is going to be a real land rush around here," noted one top official, who did not want to talk on the record about potential interest in vacant office space for fear of being seen as ghoulish.
Throughout his career, Byrd, as a Senate party leader, powerful chairman and president pro tem, was rapacious about expanding and protecting his property rights, even if it meant taking over a section of a Senate restaurant, as he once did.
He is far from the only one. As far back as the 1820s, Sen. Daniel Webster acquired a room on the third floor of the Capitol above the Senate chamber for a place to store hogsheads of wine from his personal collection. What followed would not surprise later senators who would use their private spaces for transacting both business and pleasure.
"In no time at all," wrote the historian Robert V. Remini, "the Webster Wine Room became a favorite meeting place during sessions for his colleagues and friends. There they could relax and sample excellent wines without worrying about public notice."
The room, though refurbished, still exists as a Senate hideaway.
Byrd entered the Senate during the prime of Lyndon B. Johnson, one of the best at amassing Capitol land holdings. As majority leader during Byrd’s first term, Johnson was said to have seven different hideaways scattered around two floors of the Senate, acreage so extensive that it became known as the LBJ Ranch East.
"This is a great game that everybody plays when they move up from the basement," said Richard A. Baker, the former Senate historian. "It was not unique to Robert Byrd; it is unique to senior senators."
The construction of the spacious visitor center beneath the East Front of the Capitol has eased the space crunch, and nearly all senators, no matter how junior, can lay claim to modest space away from their formal offices in the Russell, Dirksen and Hart buildings across Constitution Avenue from the Capitol. A few senators professed to not even know exactly where their hideaways were in the warrens of the Capitol.
But proximity to the Senate chamber, history and a pleasing view will continue to make spaces like those occupied by Byrd highly sought.
His is not the only one. Kennedy, who was second in seniority to Byrd, owned title to a large hideaway on the third floor of the Capitol. It was filled with family mementos and memories.
Other long-serving senators who will be abandoning their Capitol suites include Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, D-Conn., who is retiring after entering the Senate in 1981, and Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa., who joined the Senate the same year and lost a primary this year.
Senate officials were loath even to entertain the topic of what would become of Byrd’s rooms so close to his passing. No decisions on divvying up space are expected to be made until after the November elections, when some other senators not planning to vacate their offices might discover that voters in their states had different ideas.
The job of overseeing the allocation of hideaways falls to the Senate Rules Committee, which is currently under the control of Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y. and a lawmaker who understands the power of political perquisites when it comes to making friends and building influence.
To the likes of Johnson and Byrd, taking advantage of such a congressional spoils system was just another part of being a true senator.