Frank Lautenberg, 1924-2013: Politics take a rest as praise pours in [video]

The Record

Related: Christie has options in filling Lautenberg's seat

U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg
FILE PHOTO
U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg
This video frame grab provided by C-SPAN2 shows a vase filled with roses on Sen. Frank Lautenberg's, D-N.J. desk on the Senate floor on Capitol Hill in Washington, Monday, June 3, 2013.
AP
This video frame grab provided by C-SPAN2 shows a vase filled with roses on Sen. Frank Lautenberg's, D-N.J. desk on the Senate floor on Capitol Hill in Washington, Monday, June 3, 2013.

The death on Monday of Frank Lautenberg, the 89-year-old whose Senate career epitomized liberal politics for more than a quarter century, not only brought a cascade of tributes but created potential political problems for both Governor Christie’s reelection and President Obama’s agenda.

Christie, a Republican, has the power to appoint someone who could be the state’s first Republican senator since 1982 and to call a special election before 2014, when Lautenberg’s term would have been completed.

How long that Christie appointee serves was the subject of debate, however, because there are conflicting statutes, and one of them says the election to fill the seat has to be this November. Litigation is possible no matter what Christie does, though few officials wanted to talk openly about the possible chess moves on Monday out of respect for Lautenberg’s memory.

Photos: Sen. Frank Lautenberg through the years

“It’s no mystery that Senator Lautenberg and I didn’t always agree,” Christie said at his only public appearance on Monday. “But never was Senator Lautenberg to be underestimated as an advocate for the causes that he believed in and as an adversary in the political world.”

Tributes to the 89-year-old Lautenberg poured in, with groups committed to gun control, environmental protection, organized labor, mass transit and abortion rights just some of those declaring the country a better place because of him.

Lautenberg died of viral pneumonia at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center at 4:02 a.m., his office said. Flags were lowered to half-staff in the Capitol and over the White House after the news of his death, and Lautenberg’s desk on the Senate floor was covered with a black drape and vase of white roses.

Obama said that as the son of Jewish immigrants from Poland and Russia who was born in Paterson, fought in World War II and became a millionaire in business before running for office, Lautenberg “lived America’s promise as a citizen, and fought to keep that promise alive as a senator.”

Related: NJ lawmakers react to Lautenberg’s death

Vice President Joe Biden posted a voice recording of reminiscences on his White House blog that concluded: “I consider it a privilege not only to have known him, but to be one of his closest friends. I’m going to miss him a lot.”

Biden and his wife plan to attend a funeral service on Wednesday at Park Avenue Synagogue in New York City, where Lautenberg’s wife, Bonnie Engelbardt Lautenberg, worshiped. Additional memorial events, in New Jersey and possibly in Washington were being planned as well for Wednesday, according to Lautenberg’s office.

Lautenberg’s death lowers to 54 the number of seats held by Democrats and independents who vote with them, making it more difficult for party leaders to muster the 60 votes needed to advance most legislation and appointments.

It is clear that Christie has the power to call a special election before 2014, but it is unclear whether there must be an election before then. One provision – added in 2011 partly to address the way a retired Lautenberg was chosen to fill a last-minute Senate vacancy in 2002 — says the election should be this November because the vacancy was created more than 70 days from the regular election.

But a provision of a different law says vacancies created 70 or fewer days before a primary — today is primary day — will be filled in the November of the following year.

Related: Timeline of Sen. Frank Lautenberg's life and career

An opinion by the non-partisan Office of Legislative Services said Christie’s appointment would serve until November 2014 unless he calls a special election, but outgoing Democratic State Chairman John Wisniewski said party officials were mulling their legal options.

“The first move, under any scenario …  would require the governor to make decision on who would succeed Senator Lautenberg,” he said. “If he embarks on a scenario that doesn’t require that person to stand for election, it calls into question whether the governor believes, whomever he selects, would be actually able to win the election.”

Christie’s office wouldn’t comment, but the choice could affect his own election in November if he decides the seat should be filled then.

Two House incumbents – Democrats Frank Pallone and Rush Holt – as well as Newark Mayor Cory Booker all have been angling to run in 2014. Booker, who has a national base of wealthy supporters, was able to raise $1.9 million the first three months of this year, and the prospect of electing the first black senator could bolster urban turnout that otherwise might stay home this November.

Christie also needs to consider how his appointee will play with a national Republican audience, some of whom already see his conservative credentials as suspect because of his close work with the president.

He could pick a candidate who plans to run for the full term in 2014, or choose a caretaker candidate who will stay out of the election and let the Republican Party choose its nominee.

That’s what happened in 1982, when Democratic Sen. Harrison Williams resigned after a corruption conviction and Republican Gov. Thomas H. Kean Sr. named the financier Nicholas Brady to fill the seat until that November.

In that election, Lautenberg defeated the Republican nominee, Rep. Millicent Fenwick, who had wanted Kean to appoint her so she could build name recognition as an incumbent.

Sen. Bob Menendez remembered his fellow New Jerseyan’s tenacity and cited a string of accomplishments, including tougher drunken-driving laws, a ban on smoking on airplanes, co-authorship of a new GI Bill modeled after the one that paid for Lautenberg’s own degree from Columbia University, and a requirement that companies to make public what chemicals are used at their plants.

He also said Lautenberg “lived in the moment” and recounted the senator’s celebrating his 86th birthday at a Lady Gaga concert.

“He was very comfortable in life and could have said I’m going to enjoy it,” Menendez said. “He considered himself lucky, and he wanted to help others.”

Though never a gifted speaker — critics pointed to his halting and disjointed speeches at times to say he was too old to function – Lautenberg worked hard to get what he wanted. He was a fierce partisan who had close friends on both sides of the aisle.

On the campaign trail, Lautenberg was effective at savaging opponents and often used his personal wealth to supplement contributions and drown out lesser-known, lesser-funded candidates. Yet there was “a special side to him that was not public,” said John M. Carbone, a Republican lawyer who specializes in election law.

“When my son, an Army officer, was injured in Iraq in November 2005, he and Frank Lautenberg sat down for a one-on-one discussion, and Lautenberg shared his own concerns about having lost friends during war and almost having lost his own life,” Carbone said. “It was a special moment for my son and me.”

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