Sen. Frank Lautenberg, then the oldest member of the Senate, speaks Feb. 15 in his hometown of Paterson, N.J., where he said he planned to retire at the end of his current term. Lautenberg has died at age 89. (Mel Evans / AP file)
WASHINGTON — Sen. Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, a liberal Democrat who wrote some of the nation’s most sweeping health and safety laws, died Sunday, according to media reports. He was 89 and the oldest member of the Senate.
NBC News and other organizations are reporting the senator’s death. A Democratic source who asked not to be identified, pending official word from Lautenberg’s office, confirmed the news to USA TODAY.
Lautenberg, who battled stomach cancer and various ailments in recent years, had announced that he would retire in January 2015 at the end of his fifth term and not seek re-election next year. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, will appoint a replacement.
Lautenberg had been battling muscle fatigue and weakness in his legs for more than a month when he made a dramatic return to the U.S. Capitol on April 17 to vote on bills to reduce gun violence, one of his pet issues. He was ushered onto the Senate floor in a wheelchair, and proudly called out “aye” in support of expanded background checks on gun purchases — a measure that ultimately failed. On the same day, Lautenberg’s amendment to impose a 10-round limit on ammunition clips was also rejected.
Lautenberg was the last of the “Greatest Generation” in the Senate to serve in World War II, as a member of the U.S. Army Signal Corps from 1942 to 1946.
He left a successful career in business, as co-founder of the payroll services firm Automatic Data Processing (ADP), to take up politics. Lautenberg won his first race for the Senate in 1982, defeating the heavily favored moderate GOP Rep. Millicent Fenwick, and went on to an active career as a legislator.
Lautenberg wrote the 1984 law that set the national drinking age at 21 and the 1989 legislation that banned smoking on domestic flights under six hours. He also steered legislation in 2000 that established a blood-alcohol level of 0.08 percent as the minimum standard defining drunken driving and pushed in 2008 to require states to change their laws so repeat drunken drivers would have ignition locks in their vehicles.
Saying he had grown tired of fundraising and the time he spent away from his family, Lautenberg briefly retired from the Senate after the 2000 election. He also publicly feuded with his fellow New Jersey senator, Democrat Robert Torricelli.
When Torricelli ran into ethics trouble and dropped his re-election bid a month before the 2002 elections, Democrats turned to Lautenberg to run again. The ex-senator successfully defeated Republican Doug Forrester and kept the seat in Democratic hands. In 2008, when he was 84, Lautenberg defeated a primary challenge from Democratic Rep. Rob Andrews, who made the senator’s age an issue.
At the beginning of the year, Lautenberg’s political plans were unclear. Newark Mayor Cory Booker, a rising Democratic star with a national following, upset what had been accepted political protocol in New Jersey and began openly talking about running for the Senate in 2014 — while also trying to praise Lautenberg at the same time. Lautenberg didn’t take kindly to Booker coveting his seat, and mused that the mayor needed a “spanking.”