WASHINGTON (CNN) - Senior Democratic senators privately considered Tuesday Sen. Robert Byrd's capacity to handle his spot at the top of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, but the 90-year-old lawmaker won't be stepping down from the demanding job, his office told CNN.
Roll Call first reported the discussions by several Democratic senators, and a Democratic aide, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed to CNN the thrust of the newspaper report.
"There are some who have concerns," the aide said. "Ahead of the appropriations season, some people have concerns which leaked out of a meeting."
But the West Virginia senator's spokesman, Jesse Jacobs, rejected talk of replacing Byrd as chairman of the committee.
"Once again, it appears that Washington insiders are practicing what they do best - petty rumor mongering," Jacobs said in a statement.
Asked about the report, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he supports Byrd keeping the job through the end of the current Congress in January 2009.
The Democratic aide said discussions have included having other senators on the appropriations committee play broader roles as the Senate begins to tackle the many spending bills on its calendar. The first such measure is likely to be a contentious supplemental Iraq war funding bill expect on the floor in the next few weeks.
"Sen. (Patty) Murray (D-Washington) did much of the heavy lifting last year," the aide said. "Assume that will continue this year."
The matter is sensitive because senators want to show respect for Byrd, the longest serving senator in history who recently returned to work following
a fall in his home.
"Not talking about it," said a tight-lipped Sen. Richard Durbin,
D-Illinois, the number two Democrat in the Senate, when reporters asked him if he's concerned about Byrd's capacity.
In his statement, Byrd's spokesman acknowledged that the senator has been slowed by his injury but said, "he remains focused on the job at hand. Any suggestions that he is not fulfilling his duties as a United States Senator are baseless and untrue."
Byrd, in his ninth consecutive term as a senator since he was first sworn in on January 1, 1959, addressed the issue of his age in a speech on the Senate floor last June.
"I will continue to work until this old body just gives out and drops - but don't expect that to be any time soon," he said.