Washington (CNN) – Plaudits are rolling in from both sides of the Senate aisle for U.S. Sen. Robert Byrd as the passionate and painstaking Democratic senator from West Virginia became the longest-serving member of the U.S. Congress Wednesday.
On the Senate floor, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and others issued moving tributes to the larger-than-life legislator, who served six years in the House and then nearly 51 years and counting in the Senate.
The senators marveled at Byrd's milestones:
He became the only person ever elected to nine full terms in the Senate,
served in Congress for 20,774 days, cast more than 18,000 Senate votes, and is the longest-serving member of the Senate Appropriations Committee. He presided over the Senate's shortest and longest continuous sessions.
He is known for his encyclopedic knowledge of Senate rules and has never lost an election.
"Throughout history, forecasters have subjected themselves to ridicule for prematurely assuming a skyscraper's height would never be topped, a promising invention's ingenuity would never be outdone or for contending an athletic feat would never be surpassed," said Reid, the Democrat from Nevada.
"I am willing to risk predicting that many of the records set by Sen. Robert Byrd will never be passed."
Byrd surpassed Carl T. Hayden, the Arizona Democrat who served a total of 20,773 days in the U.S. House and Senate. McConnell, the Kentucky Republican quoted Byrd as saying that one has to work at being a good senator and that now, "longer than anyone else in our history, he's lived by those words."
"Carl Hayden was known to many as the silent senator. That probably isn't a phrase many would use to describe Sen. Byrd, but what they both share is an undying love of this great country of ours and of the United States Congress," McConnell said.
Byrd, who is to turn 92 on Friday, was raised by an aunt and uncle after his mother died when he was a year old. He hadn't graduated from college until he received a degree in 1994 from Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia. In a sign of his Appalachian roots, Byrd was an avid fiddle player who appeared twice on the television program "Hee Haw," but gave up playing in the 1980s due to a tremor in his hands.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller, Byrd's colleague from West Virginia, warmly congratulated and praised Byrd, noting the "tremendous respect and the unwavering admiration" throughout the Senate and for the voice and the vision he gave to his fellow West Virginians.
"Most importantly and most powerfully," he said. "Sen. Byrd always makes me so very proud to be a West Virginian."
In Charleston, the West Virginia state capital, an afternoon ceremony with West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin, will honor Byrd and it will be followed by an exhibit illustrating his accomplishments that include "photos from throughout his distinguished career, his beloved fiddle and other personal memorabilia."
"Sen. Byrd sets the gold standard for what it means to be an outstanding public official," Manchin said recently.
In a statement issued by his office, Byrd expressed his gratitude to "the people of the great State of West Virginia" for their long-standing confidence in him.
His only regret, he said, was that his wife, Erma, who died in 2006, would not be with him.
"I know that she is looking down from the heavens smiling at me and saying congratulations my dear Robert - but don't let it go to your head," Byrd's statement said.
His early political years displayed some of the deeply rooted racism of the American South. Byrd was a member of the white supremacist Ku Klux Klan in the early 1940s, and later called it "the most egregious mistake I've ever made."
In 1964, he voted against the Civil Rights Act pushed by Democratic President Lyndon Johnson. But Byrd later followed a more traditional Democratic path.
An ardent foe of President George W. Bush's policies in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Byrd opposed creating the Department of Homeland Security in 2002 and called Bush "dangerous, reckless and arrogant" in February 2003, six weeks before the Iraq war started.
Three months later, he criticized Bush's landing a jet on the USS Abraham Lincoln to signal the end of the Iraq war as "flamboyant showmanship."
Things have changed since he arrived in Washington as a new congressman in 1953, along with the first Eisenhower administration. Gas cost 20 cents a gallon back then, and the average annual salary was less than $4,000.
Ten presidents later, Byrd is known for his devotion to his state and constituents.
"Although we are marking a longevity milestone, it has been the quality and dedication of service that has guided me over the years," Byrd said in his statement. "I have strived to provide the people of West Virginia the best representation possible each of the 20,774 days which I have served in the Congress of the United States."
He thanked his constituents for their support and for "putting their trust and faith in me."
Slowed by illness in recent years, including a six-week hospital stay this year due to a staph infection, Byrd concluded his statement with typical bravado.
"The only way for me to close on this historic day is to say that I look forward to serving you for the next 56 years and 320 days," he said. "Thank you and may God bless you."
–CNN's Tom Cohen contributed to this report