WASHINGTON — Sen.
Lautenberg, who was the Senate's oldest member and his state's longest-serving senator (28 years, 5 months and 8 days), died of complications from
New Jersey Gov.
If Christie appoints a Republican, the balance of power in the Senate would shift to 52 Democrats, 46
Secretary of State
Even when Lautenberg was weakened by
Lautenberg, a highly successful businessman, was first elected to the Senate in 1982 and retired after three terms in 2000. He hit the stump again two years later, at age 78, at the urging of desperate fellow Democrats after the scandal-plagued Democratic incumbent,
Earlier this year, Lautenberg announced plans to retire when his term expired in January 2015. Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark, has been the leading Democratic contender to win the 2014 election to replace him.
If Christie appoints a replacement to serve out the remainder of Lautenberg's term, rather than call a special election for this fall, Democrats will almost certainly challenge him in court, said Rutgers University law professor Frank Askin, because they are eager to fill the seat sooner. Allowing a Republican to serve out the term might provide a GOP incumbent a possible advantage in the 2014 race.
Christie didn't signal his plans Monday, but he paid tribute to Lautenberg at a news conference in Trenton. "We had some pretty good fights," Christie said. "But never was Sen. Lautenberg to be underestimated as an advocate for the causes that he believed in."
Lautenberg was the Senate author of the 1984 bill that set the national 21-year-old drinking age. He later led a successful effort to use federal highway funds to pressure states into lowering the drunk-driving standard to a blood-alcohol content of 0.08%. All 50 states adopted the standard.
In recent weeks, he announced plans to ratchet up pressure on states with legislation requiring special ignition locks for convicted drunk drivers. The device requires them to test their breath for alcohol before the car can start.
Lautenberg also pushed for funding for improved rail service, especially in the Northeast corridor. The station at Secaucus Junction, N.J., is named for him.
Born on Jan. 23, 1924, in Paterson, N.J., to immigrant parents from Russia and Poland, Lautenberg enlisted in the military at 18 and served in
After attending Columbia University on the G.I. Bill, he went on to make a fortune with the payroll services company
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 13 grandchildren.