SEN. ROBERT BYRD DIES AT AGE 92…. An extraordinary life and historic career came to an end overnight, as Sen. Robert Byrd (D) of West Virginia died in a Washington-area hospital. The accomplished 92-year-old senator was the longest-serving member of Congress in American history, and had an unrivaled knowledge of and appreciation for institutional history.

The Washington Post‘s obituary is well worth reading, and I’m also including a video put together by the Senate Democratic caucus last year, when Byrd broke the record as the longest serving federal lawmaker.

Starting in 1958, Mr. Byrd was elected to the Senate an unprecedented nine times. He wrote a four-volume history of the body, was majority leader twice and chaired the powerful Appropriations Committee, controlling the nation’s purse strings, and yet the positions of influence he held did not convey the astonishing arc of his life.

A child of the West Virginia coal fields, Mr. Byrd rose from the grinding poverty that has plagued his state since before the Great Depression, overcame an early and ugly association with the Ku Klux Klan, worked his way through night school and by force of will, determination and iron discipline made himself a person of authority and influence in Washington.

Although he mined extraordinary amounts of federal largesse for his perennially impoverished state, his reach extended beyond the bounds of the Mountain State. […]

He was known for his stentorian orations seasoned with biblical and classical allusions and took pride in being the Senate’s resident constitutional scholar, keeping a copy of the Constitution in his breast pocket. He saw himself both as institutional memory and as guardian of the Senate’s prerogatives.

By any reasonable measure, that institutional memory is simply irreplaceable. What’s more, Byrd’s passing represents the end of an era, and his stature and grace will be missed.

The day clearly belongs to the legendary senator, but given the larger circumstances on Capitol Hill, it’s only natural to consider the implications of Byrd’s Senate vacancy, as the Democratic caucus slips from 58 to 57 members (with two independents).

Byrd’s replacement will be named by West Virginia’s Democratic governor, Joe Manchin, but as Nate Silver noted yesterday, it’s not entirely straightforward. Under state law, if the vacancy this year is declared before July 3 (this upcoming Saturday), West Virginia will hold a special election this November to elect a senator to fill the remaining two years on Byrd’s current term. If the vacancy is declared after July 3, Manchin can appoint an interim senator who would serve through 2012, and there would be no election this year.

Complicating the political considerations, Steve Kornacki explained that Manchin will likely be interested in the Senate seat, though he has vowed not to appoint himself. It’s in his interest, then, not to declare the seat vacant until after Saturday, after which point Manchin can name a placeholder until the 2012 election.

But regardless of those electoral consequences, Byrd’s storied life and career are nothing short of remarkable. He will not soon be forgotten.

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Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.