Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., who died early Monday at 89 due to complications from viral pneumonia, had been absent from Capitol Hill for many months because of illness.
But he made one last memorable appearance, at a Senate committee hearing on May 16, in an effort to thwart a GOP boycott of the vote to approve Gina McCarthy's nomination to lead the Environmental Protection Agency.
Seated in a wheelchair, Lautenberg voted to approve McCarthy, but did not speak during the hearing. New Jersey-based paper The Record, which briefly talked with the senator after the vote, said he spoke "in a weak and halting voice" but assured them he felt good and his appearance should be taken as a sign of his imminent return.
But Lautenberg was dealing with a host of issues, according to his staff: fatigue, muscle weakness and leg pain, all after experiencing a severe cold. In the months before, he suffered from flu and bronchitis, and in 2010 he had a bout with a cancerous tumor in his stomach, though he later declared he was cancer-free.
Lautenberg was asked to attend the hearing by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who wanted every Democrat in attendance in the event that Republicans went forward with their boycott. And they were deeply appreciative he had made it: Philly.com reported fellow senators "clasped him in the shoulders and warmly shook his hand" at the hearing while Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., "nodded warmly" his way. "It is a joyful experience to see your beautiful face here," Boxer also told Lautenberg, after kissing him on the cheek. "All of us here feel that way."
With Lautenberg's help, the Democrats inched closer to what they wanted. The GOP dropped the boycott and McCarthy's nomination was sent to the full Senate, which still has to take it up for a vote. Lautenberg, who made a number of major strides on public safety during his 30-year tenure, never spoke publicly about why he came to the hearing that day, and his staff did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Whispers.
But in a statement posted to his website after the hearing, he wrote that the EPA deserved a "permanent leader" so America could have a "cleaner and healthier future," and he believed McCarthy was that leader.