WASHINGTON -- Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg of New Jersey, the last World War II veteran in the Senate and a stalwart Democrat who led fights to ban smoking on airplanes and to crack down on drunk driving, died Monday at age 89.
His death opens the way for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, to appoint a replacement who could serve until Lautenberg’s term ends in January 2015 unless Christie calls a special election for this November.
President Obama said Lautenberg "improved the lives of countless Americans with his commitment to our nation’s health and safety, from improving our public transportation to protecting citizens from gun violence to ensuring that members of our military and their families get the care they deserve."
Lautenberg, who was the oldest member of the Senate, died of complications from viral pneumonia at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell, his office announced.
Lautenberg was first elected to the Senate in 1982 and retired after three terms in 2000. But he hit the stump again two years later, at age 78, at the urging of desperate fellow Democrats after the scandal-plagued Democratic incumbent, Robert Torricelli, bowed out of the contest.
Earlier this year, Lautenberg announced plans to retire after this term.
If Christie appoints a Republican, the balance of power in the Senate would shift to 52 Democrats, 46 Republicans and two independents who currently caucus with the Democrats.
Democrats were favored to win the 2014 election to replace Lautenberg.
Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark, is the leading Democratic contender. But Lautenberg's death would allow Christie to appoint a Republican who would have the potential advantage of running as the incumbent next year.
But Lautenberg's death would allow Christie to appoint a Republican who would have the potential advantage of running as the incumbent next year.
Christie, noting that he and Lautenberg had "some pretty good fights," added, "Never was Sen. Lautenberg to be underestimated as an advocate for the causes that he believed in."
He told the governor’s Conference for Women in Trenton that Lautenberg "fought for the things he believed in and sometimes he just fought because he liked to."
Lautenberg championed gun control and wrote a 1996 measure denying guns to those convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence.
Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) noted that one of Lautenberg’s last public acts was to return to the Senate floor on April 17, "even though he was not feeling well," to vote for an ill-fated measure to strengthen background checks for gun purchases.
Lautenberg was the Senate author of the 1984 bill that set the national 21-year-old drinking age. He later led an effort to threaten to withhold federal highway funds to pressure states into lowering the drunk-driving standard to 0.08 blood alcohol content.
In recent weeks, he planned to push legislation to ratchet up pressure on states to require special ignition locks for convicted drunk drivers. The device requires them to test their breath for alcohol before the car will start.
Lautenberg also pushed for funding for improved regional rail service, especially in the Northeast corridor. A train station in New Jersey is named after him.
Born in Paterson, N.J., to immigrant parents from Russia and Poland, Lautenberg enlisted in the military at age 18, and served in the Army Signal Corps in Europe during World War II.
After attending Columbia University on the G.I. Bill, he went on to make a fortune with the payroll services company Automatic Data Processing, now known as ADP.
In a 1998 Los Angeles Times interview, he described the "culture shock" of going from the corporate world to Capitol Hill. He quickly learned, he said, that "the rules of business don't necessarily apply."
"The typical CEO does some of the listening, a lot of talking and almost all the decision-making," he said. "You get [to Capitol Hill] and find out that lots of people compete to do all the talking, you do a helluva lot of listening, and very little decision-making."
Lautenberg is survived by his wife, Bonnie Englebardt Lautenberg; six children and their spouses, Ellen Lautenberg and Doug Hendel, Nan and Joe Morgart, Josh and Christina Lautenberg, Lisa and Doug Birer, Danielle Englebardt and Stuart Katzoff, Lara Englebardt Metz and Corey Metz; and 13 grandchildren.
Follow Politics Now on Twitter and Facebook