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Democrat Robert Byrd's death threatens to derail Obama's landmark finance Bill

Washington is mourning Robert Byrd, the longest-serving senator in US history and unswerving defender of Congress and its constitutional prerogatives, who died yesterday at the age of 92.

Senator after senator took time out at the start of the confirmation hearings of the Supreme Court nominee, Elena Kagan, to pay tribute to their late Democratic colleague, while flags flew at half mast on Capitol Hill, where Mr Byrd represented West Virginia for 57 years – the first six in the House of Representatives and the rest as a nine-times elected senator.

"He held the deepest respect of members of both parties, and he was generous with his time and advice, something I appreciated greatly as a young senator," President Barack Obama said of Mr Byrd, who had long been in frail health. He was taken to hospital last week suffering from heat exhaustion, as temperatures had approached 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the Washington area.

But, even as it paid its respects to a vanished titan, Washington was busy calculating the political consequences of his death – in particular the implications for the key financial regulatory reform Bill that Mr Obama was hoping to sign before Congress begins its Independence Day recess this weekend. The House and Senate have agreed a final version of the measure, which has a smattering of Republican support. Even so, Senate Republicans are within a vote or two of the 41 required to mount a filibuster to block the measure's passage.

The loss of Mr Byrd has raised fears that, for the second time this year, the death of a prominent Democratic senator could bring down one of the White House's priority legislative initiatives: healthcare reform came within an ace of disaster in January, when Republicans captured the Massachusetts seat long held by the late Edward Kennedy.

The chances are, however, that Senator Byrd's death will delay, but not derail, the financial Bill, considered the biggest overhaul of the rules governing the banking and investment industry since the Great Depression. Republicans might now on paper have the votes to block it – but at the risk of being portrayed by Democrats as being in the pocket of Wall Street, just months before mid-term Congressional elections. For that reason, analysts reckon that one or two hostile Republicans may relent, to allow the Bill to pass.

In the longer term, Republicans may be the gainers. A temporary successor to Mr Byrd will be appointed by the state's Democratic governor, Joe Manchin. He or she will undoubtedly be a Democrat. But whether Democrats can hang on to the seat in an election is another matter. Democrats have long dominated state politics, but Republicans carried West Virginia in the last three presidential elections.

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