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Lautenberg International Airport?

In going through old stories about Frank R. Lautenberg, we stumbled on one curious anecdote. In an alternate reality, Newark Liberty International Airport might already be named for the late senator.

The idea was floated around the time the New Jersey Democrat first retired from the Senate and gained a mix of support and ridicule. He was back just two years later when Democrats needed an emergency replacement for Sen. Robert G. Torricelli on the general election ballot.

The Newark Star-Ledger reported back in 2000 that the idea came through Sen. Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., who wanted to attach the naming provision to a bill appropriating funds for the Transportation Department. Such moves were commonplace among appropriators at the time, though they’ve fallen out of favor these days.

New Jersey officials opposed the change, however. Neither New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, a Republican, nor Torricelli, a Democrat who famously sparred with Lautenberg, supported the idea. Some noted that other major airports were named for former presidents, like Reagan National in northern Virginia and JFK International in New York.

The New Jersey Transit station at Secaucus junction and a federal building in Newark now carry Lautenberg’s name.

On Monday, Shelby told #WGDB that groups in New Jersey reached out to him about the possibility of naming the airport for Lautenberg, who died early Monday morning at age 89.

Shelby said in a brief interview that the people who contacted his office “thought it would be a great honor for him, and he had been very active in transportation on the committee. It didn’t ultimately happen, but he had a lot of friends that would like to have seen that happen.”

The National Air Traffic Controllers Association was one of many praising Lautenberg’s career Monday. His Senate biography includes his successful effort to ban smoking on airplanes.

In a statement issued earlier Monday, Shelby expanded on his thoughts about Lautenberg, a fellow longtime member of the Appropriations Committee.

“I knew Senator Lautenberg for 27 years and worked closely with him on transportation appropriations issues.  He was a strong advocate for the people of New Jersey, a proud veteran of the Second World War, a distinguished colleague, and a good friend,” Shelby said. “I extend my deepest condolences to his wife, Bonnie, and the rest of his family.”

The Appropriations panel announced Monday evening that subcommittee hearings scheduled for Wednesday would be postponed to allow members to attend to services for Lautenberg. The funeral’s set for 11:30 a.m. Wednesday at the Park Ave Synagogue in New York, the late senator’s Newark office confirmed. Full details were expected Tuesday morning.

Sarah Chacko contributed to this report.

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