WASHINGTON -- Normally, if a president were trying to bend the balky Senate to his will, he would find no fiercer, more skillful opponent than Robert C. Byrd, a renowned defender of Senate prerogative.
But if the president were as lucky as Bill Clinton, and could call upon the wily six-term Democrat from West Virginia to be his chief advocate, he would find the Senate as it is now -- tied in a procedural web from which the only escape is to do the president's bidding.
It's a circumstance that makes sense in a world in which power -- the ability to use it and earn gratitude for it -- is sometimes more important than principle.
"Byrd lives and breathes the Senate and knows how to use the rules better than anyone," explained Tom C. Korologos, a former White House lobbyist during the Nixon administration. "But he's got a lot at stake here. This is his first test as defender of the president's program. He's got to win."
Yesterday marked the second day of a Senate stalemate over Mr. Clinton's $16.3 billion economic stimulus package, which he is determined to get through intact.
It might be called a filibuster, except that Mr. Byrd, as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee and floor manager for the bill, has so confounded the opponents who would like to trim or even kill the president's package that they don't know what to do next.
In effect, all amendments to the bill are meaningless and the Senate has no choice but to accept or reject the president's proposal. In order to change the bill, as Mr. Byrd has constructed the procedure, the Senate would have to vote against it twice. This is considered difficult by most Democrats, who do not want to be seen as opposing Mr. Clinton's program when all they would want is modify it.
"It was a masterful stroke," a Republican lobbyist said. "I don't know anyone on our side who doesn't think the president's bill will go through as is."
Mr. Byrd's assistance will surely not go unnoticed by President Clinton, who already pays uncommon respect to the former majority leader and president pro tempore.
Some speculate here that Mr. Byrd may be trying to make amends to the president for using procedure to block Mr. Clinton's attempts to combine his health care reform proposal with the budget legislation. Others suspect Mr. Byrd's payoff may be greater latitude in shaping appropriations bills under Mr. Clinton's new budget, especially where the needs and wants of West Virginia are concerned.
"There is that wheel on which the affairs of men revolve, and its movement forbids the same man to always be fortunate," Mr. Byrd told his colleagues Thursday as he took up the cause to push Mr. Clinton's stimulus package through a thicket of weakening amendments. "And this president or any other president will not always be fortunate. But let us not break his wing here on the 64th day of his presidency."
Sen. John Breaux, a Louisiana Democrat whose efforts to delay spending of about half of Mr. Clinton's package until later in the year have been thwarted by Mr. Byrd, said last night he is hopeful of working out some compromise with the White House over the weekend.
He said he is seeking verbal "assurances" that only money for the most urgently needed programs will be spent right away.
But the president had better not change his mind about refusing to accept a compromise on the legislation, Mr. Byrd warned.
Mr. Byrd called himself yesterday a "country boy . . . a rustic boob from West Virginia, that poverty-stricken state where hillbillies live in trucks." As he stood alone, except for the bill's opponents, on the Senate floor, he complained he was outnumbered 11 to 1 by an "army" of Republicans.
"If it is only 11 to 1 against Senator Byrd, then he is not outnumbered," protested his GOP colleague, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, who said he has been studying Mr. Byrd's four-decade career in Congress.
In fact, the silver-maned Mr. Byrd, whose 75 years have made him appear a little frail but not taken any of his rhetorical bite, is nearly always in the midst of some lecture.
Over the past two days, he has reminisced about his childhood, and quoted poetry learned in a two-room schoolhouse. When a Republican senator refused to yield the floor, Mr. Byrd compared himself to the Athenian general Phocion, who was on trial for his life but wasn't allowed to speak.
But, most pointedly, Mr. Byrd lectured the senators on why they have no right to complain about being boxed in by procedural tricks if they haven't bothered to learn how the game is played.
"Most senators, I have found, based on my observations through the years, do not pay much attention to the rules," he said. "That is dry stuff. It does not get headlines. Who wants to bother with reading an old rule book? . . .
"I have played by the rules," he concluded.