Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., died overnight of complications from viral pneumonia, his office said Monday.
At 89, Lautenberg was the oldest senator—and the last World War II veteran serving in that legislative body. He enlisted at 18 and served in the Army Signal Corps in Europe during the war.
Lautenberg served on the Senate committees on Appropriations; Commerce Science and Transportation; and Environment and Public Works. He had struggled with health problems earlier this year and already had announced that he would not run for re-election in 2014.
Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, has the power to appoint someone to fill the vacancy, according to The Bergen Record, which was first to report the news. Christie is expected to schedule a special election to find a permanent successor—a decision that is sure to impact what was already considered a heated race to replace the late senator.
On the Democratic side, Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker announced in December he would bypass a run for governor against Christie to explore a run for Lautenberg's seat. Reps. Frank Pallone and Rush Holt have also been eying the race. While no Republicans have formally declared, several have been mentioned as possible candidates—including state Sens. Thomas Kean Jr., who ran for the seat in 2006, and Joseph Kyrillos, who unsuccessfully tried to unseat Sen. Robert Menendez in 2012.
While Christie's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment, Kean and Kyrillos are already being mentioned as possible GOP appointees—along with Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno. Christie could also appoint a Democrat—a move that would likely win raves in the heavily Democratic state as he vies for a second term as governor this November. But it would likely alienate Republicans and put at risk his rumored aspirations of running for president in 2016.
Speaking at a women's conference in Trenton on Monday morning, Christie praised Lautenberg as a "fighter" who advocated passionately for the things he believed in—and who sometimes "just fought because he liked to."
"It’s no mystery that Sen. Lautenberg and I didn’t always agree. In fact, it probably is more honest to say we very often didn’t agree, and we had some pretty good fights between us over time—battles on philosophy and the role of government," Christie said. But never was Sen. Lautenberg to be underestimated as an advocate for the causes that he believed in and as an adversary in the political world."
Lautenberg's career accomplishments included writing the law that banned smoking on airplanes, and he later helped craft legislation to ban smoking in all federal buildings. He also played a central role in raising the national drinking age to 21. He also wrote the law that prevents domestic abusers from owning firearms.
Lautenberg was a businessman and commissioner of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey before he successfully won New Jersey's U.S. Senate seat in 1982. He served until 2001, when he retired. But he agreed to run again in 2002, when then-Sen. Robert Torricelli, who was seeking re-election, dropped out of the race amid an ethics scandal.
Lautenberg's future in the Senate had been the subject of rumors for months because of his declining health, but that didn't diminish his fighting spirit. Lautenberg railed against Booker for declaring his intention to run for the Senate before he had decided whether to seek another term—telling a reporter that Booker deserved a "spanking" for jumping into the race too early.
In a message posted on Twitter Monday, Booker praised Lautenberg as "a true champion" for New Jersey and a "tireless partner who always delivered for the people of Newark." "His legacy will endure for generations," Booker added.
Christie cleared his public schedule for Monday—leading to speculation that he's exploring his options for what to do about the special election. A major question is whether Booker, who has been considered a front-runner for the 2014 election, will be nominated by his party to be on the special election ballot this year, which could be scheduled for Nov. 5, Election Day.
But as the Washington Post's Sean Sullivan notes, New Jersey election law on this subject is somewhat murky and could allow Christie to delay the special election until November 2014. The latter could be more appealing to Christie because having a special election on the ballot this year would likely drive up Democratic turnout--which would help his Democratic opponent, Barbara Buono.
"Democrats are definitely going to push to have the election this year because it would drive up turnout for all of their candidates, including those in the state legislature," a New Jersey Democratic strategist, who declined to be named talking about strategy, told Yahoo News. "But this is Christie's deal. He is going to control this."
In the meantime, tributes for Lautenberg poured in from both sides of the political spectrum. In a statement, President Barack Obama praised Lautenberg as a "proud New Jerseyan who lived America’s promise as a citizen, and fought to keep that promise alive as a senator."
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican, praised Lautenberg as someone who served the nation "with courage and dignity" and as someone who "tirelessly championed the cause of veterans like him who have sacrificed so much for America."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he could "think of no better example of an American success story than Frank’s life."
"History will show that Frank is one of the most productive senators in the history of America," Reid said.
Rachel Hartman contributed to this report.