Longtime New Jersey Sen. Frank Lautenberg Dies At 89

Longtime New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg died early Monday from health complications related to viral pneumonia. His health had been failing for some time, and earlier this year he decided not to seek re-election in 2014.

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Early this morning, the United States Senate lost its most elderly member, the sole remaining senator who had served in World War II. New Jersey Democrat Frank Lautenberg died at the age of 89, three years after overcoming a bout with cancer. He was one of the most liberal senators. He was also one of the wealthiest. And as NPR's David Welna reports, Frank Lautenberg's 28-year career in the Senate has left a mark.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: As the Senate opened today after a Memorial Day recess, there was a vase filled with white roses on a black cloth draped across the desk of Frank Lautenberg. Majority Leader Harry Reid noted the New Jersey Democrat's death comes less than six months after that of another Democrat and World War II vet, Hawaii's Daniel Inouye.

SENATOR HARRY REID: It seems the flowers have barely wilted on the desk that was right behind me, Senator Inouye. So I - this person have a heavy heart.

WELNA: And while Lautenberg may not have become a household name, Reid said during the 28 years he served in the Senate - longer than any other senator from New Jersey - he got a lot done.

REID: Few people in the history of this institution contributed as much to our nation and to the United States Senate as Frank Lautenberg.

WELNA: The son of poor Polish and Russian immigrants, Lautenberg went to college on the G.I. Bill then co-founded what would become one of the biggest payroll processing centers in the nation and became a millionaire many times over.

ROSS BAKER: He was somebody who was not a natural senator.

WELNA: That's Rutgers University's Ross Baker, a Senate expert. He says it took some time for Lautenberg, after having headed a big company, to realize he could not just order other senators around.

BAKER: But within the areas that he championed, he was really quite successful, including something that I think every American who flies on an airplane owes him, and that is the ban on smoking, which was very definitely Frank Lautenberg's bill.

WELNA: Lautenberg was also a fierce advocate of tighter gun control. He left his sickbed in New Jersey six weeks ago to cast what would be his last vote in the Senate chamber, a measure to expand background checks for gun buyers, which failed. He was also a champion of Amtrak and a crusader for tougher regulation of chemical wastes. Secretary of State John Kerry noted today that Lautenberg was also highly loyal.

SECRETARY JOHN KERRY: And I will always be grateful and touched by the ferocity with which Frank defended me in 2004 when partisans questioned my own service in the Navy.

WELNA: That was when Kerry was running for president and then-Vice President Cheney had attacked the Democratic candidate. Lautenberg had gone to the Senate floor with a big drawing of a chicken dressed up in a military uniform, and he called Cheney - who'd avoided the draft during the Vietnam War with stupid deferrals - a chicken hawk.

SENATOR FRANK LAUTENBERG: We know who the chicken hawks are. They talk tough on national defense and military issues and cast aspersion on others. When it was their turn to serve, where were they? A-W-O-L, that's where they were.

WELNA: Earlier this year, amidst speculation about whether or not he'd seek a sixth term next year, Lautenberg held a news conference in New Jersey to announce his plans.

LAUTENBERG: I'm going to work hard every day. I'll continue my work through the end of this Senate term. And in case you weren't aware, I'm not standing for re-election in 2014.

WELNA: It's now up to New Jersey Republican Governor Chris Christie to fill Lautenberg's vacant seat. Rutgers' Baker doubts Christie would choose anyone other than a Republican.

BAKER: The governor right now is enormously popular. And I think that very few people in the state would expect him to appoint a Democrat. I mean, I think if he did, I think people would be shocked.

WELNA: It's not clear who Christie might choose or how soon an election will be held to fill that seat in the Senate draped in black. David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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