Senators sat at their desks Monday evening, wiping away tears and looking on in disbelief as Majority Leader Harry Reid announced the death of Appropriations Chairman Daniel K. Inouye.
“If there were ever a patriot, Dan Inouye was that patriot,” said the Nevada Democrat, noting he recently met with Inouye in his Capitol office. “We ended the meeting by saying, you know, we both said we need to do this again, but I won’t be able to do it again.”
Shortly after his death, the Senate moved to replace the Hawaii Democrat as Senate president pro tem, a position that puts the holder third in line for the presidency. The role will now be filled by the man who also replaced Inouye as the most senior member of the majority party — Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt. He is expected to be sworn in Tuesday.
Soft-spoken and media averse, Inouye did not often speak on the floor. But when he did, other senators often stopped to take note. The decorated World War II veteran took to the floor Dec. 7 of last year to recall the day he watched Japanese bombers fly over his House in Hawaii during the attack on Pearl Harbor. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., was present on the floor for that speech and recalled part of it Monday evening while lauding the war hero.
“I didn’t always agree with Dan. Occasionally we had differences about how to use appropriations bills,” McCain said, alluding to Inouye’s unabashed support for congressional earmarks. “But no one … ever accused Dan Inouye of partisanship or unfairness.”
Indeed, Inouye was a loyal Democrat, but only to a point. He became best friends with the late Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, during their time in the Senate together. And when Stevens was accused of corruption in 2008, Inouye not only donated to his campaign, he appeared in Alaska on Stevens’ behalf.
Inouye served in Europe during World War II in a unit made up primarily of second-generation Japanese-Americans. During combat in Italy, he advanced alone to take out a machine gunner who had pinned down his men. He lost his right arm and spent 20 months in military hospitals. President Barack Obama, who was born in Hawaii, highlighted that remarkable story.
“It was his incredible bravery during World War II — including one heroic effort that cost him his arm but earned him the Medal of Honor — that made Danny not just a colleague and a mentor, but someone revered by all of us lucky enough to know him,” Obama said.
Leahy, who is also next in line to be chairman of Appropriations, already had been assuming additional work this week as the floor manager of a supplemental disaster aid bill. “He was a great friend. It’s broken me up,” Leahy said, when leaving the Senate on Monday night after hearing the news.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., another longtime appropriator, highlighted the fact that Inouye often let others take the spotlight.
“An iconic political figure of his beloved Hawaii, and the only original member of a congressional delegation still serving in Congress, he was a man who had every reason to call attention to himself but who never did,” McConnell said. “He was the kind of man, in short, that America has always been grateful to have, especially in her darkest hours: men who lead by example and who expect nothing in return.”
Inouye was first elected in 1959 as the new state’s first House member, and he moved to the Senate in 1962. He was the second-longest-serving senator in history.
Inouye became Appropriations chairman in 2009, after Senate Democratic leaders moved to push out an ailing Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va. But Inouye said he only took the job after Byrd willingly relinquished the gavel, indicating he was a believer in the Senate’s long history of honoring seniority.
“I recall over the many years that I served on this committee, there were two senators who chaired this committee while they were literally on their deathbed,” Inouye told CQ Roll Call in 2009.
Despite his strong belief in the traditions of the Senate and the prerogatives of the legislative branch, Inouye reluctantly agreed to restrict earmarks in appropriations bills in recent years. He also gave a speech in September in which he lamented the increased use of the filibuster, saying, “At some point, this body needs to alter either its behavior or its rules” — a sign that he was changing his stance on whether to alter the rules governing legislative blockades.
On Dec. 6, Inouye was hospitalized at The George Washington University hospital before being transferred to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., for treatment for a respiratory condition.
Spokesman Peter Boylan said in a statement that Inouye succumbed to complications from those conditions at 5:01 p.m. Monday. Boylan reported that his last word was “Aloha.”