At 92, Robert Byrd lived a full life, over half of it in the United States Congress. He was an institution in West Virginia and probably did more to keep that state alive as any man in America. His checkered history aside (acknowledged and regretted by him but continually brought up by conservatives losing an argument), he was a massive presence in the Senate, someone who treated the office with dignity. RIP.

When his illness was announced yesterday, it seemed his death would be far more disruptive to a Senate which frequently passes votes by a razor’s edge, and a Democratic majority threatened with huge losses this year in the midterms. But actually, it looks like that won’t be a huge problem. Reid Wilson notes that Gov. Joe Manchin will fill the seat with a replacement, who in all likelihood, will serve until 2012:

WV law gives Gov. Joe Manchin (D) the power to appoint Byrd’s replacement. If a vacancy occurs within 2 and a half years of the beginning of the next term, the governor appoints a replacement until that next election. But state law says an election must be called if a vacancy occurs more than 2 and a half years before a term expires. Byrd’s term would have had 2 and a half years left as of next week — July 3.

But a special election is unlikely. State law says Manchin’s appointment will be valid “until a successor to the office has timely filed a certificate of candidacy, has been nominated at the primary election next following such timely filing and has thereafter been elected and qualified to fill the unexpired term.”

The WV primary took place May 11, making it unlikely that a special election will take place this year. And odd-year elections, used in many states to pick local officials, are a rarity in WV. In recent years, voters went to the polls only in ’05, when they voted on a constitutional amendment. No elections were held in ’07, ’03 or ’01.

Because the primary has already occured, the next opportunity to “timely file” will be Jan. ’12 — when Byrd’s seat would have come open anyway. A primary would follow in May, with a special election to be held in concurrence with a general election later that year.

Wilson thinks it very likely that Manchin would appoint himself, because his gubernatorial term also expires in 2012. (UPDATE: Manchin has said he wouldn’t appoint himself, so would probably appoint a placeholder.) All statewide officials in West Virginia are still Democrats, even as the state has trended Republican in recent years.

In the near term, unless Manchin makes his choice this week, I don’t see how the Senate will be able to pass cloture on financial reform. They’d have to hold Scott Brown and pick up either Maria Cantwell, Chuck Grassley or some other Republican. But after the July 4 recess, presumably someone would be installed, providing a full complement of Senators.

UPDATE: Nate Silver talked to the West Virginia Secretary of State’s office, and they said no decision has yet been made on the timing of the special election. You can interpret the statute as requiring a special election in November or in 2012.

I’ll throw Harry Reid’s statement on the flip.

“Robert Byrd’s was one of the greatest minds the world has ever seen. From his graduation as valedictorian of his high school class at the age of 16 to his chairmanship of the Senate Appropriations Committee until the age of 91, he mastered everything he touched with great thoughtfulness and skill. Throughout more than half a century of service in this body, and six more in the House, Senator Byrd never stopped fighting for the people of West Virginia and for Democratic principles. My thoughts, and those of the entire United States Senate, are with the Byrd family.

“Robert Byrd was a Member of this nation’s Congress for more than a quarter of the time it has existed, and longer than a quarter of today’s sitting Senators and the President of the United States have been alive. The nine times the people of his state sent him to the Senate and the more than 18,500 votes he cast in its chamber will never be matched. His political career spanned a dozen presidencies and countless American advances and achievements. And throughout one of the longest political careers in history, no one ever defeated Robert Byrd in a single election.

“The people of West Virginia have lost a dedicated public servant, and America has lost a great defender of its most precious traditions. He was the foremost guardian of the Senate’s complex rules, procedures and customs, and as leader of both the majority and the minority caucuses in the Senate he knew better than most that legislation is the art of compromise.

“By virtue of his endurance, Robert Byrd knew and worked with many of the greats of the United States Senate. Because of his enduring virtue, he will be remembered as one of them. Senator Byrd dedicated every single day of his Senate service to strengthening the institution, state and republic that he loved so dearly. There will never be another like him.”