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Former Colleagues Reflect on Life of Pete Domenici

Speaker Ryan learned from Domenici as a staffer

Chief Justice Warren Burger with Sen. Pete V. Domenici, R-N.M., talking over a book at the Capitol Hill Reception for the New Washington Guide Book in 1975. (Photo by CQ Roll Call)
Chief Justice Warren Burger with Sen. Pete V. Domenici, R-N.M., talking over a book at the Capitol Hill Reception for the New Washington Guide Book in 1975. (Photo by CQ Roll Call)

Speaker Paul D. Ryan was a Senate staffer back when Sen. Pete V. Domenici wielded the gavel of the Senate Budget Committee.

Ryan was one of the relatively small number of lawmakers quick to offer condolences on the passing of the Republican from New Mexico, who was one of the most influential senators of his era.

“My first job on Capitol Hill was in the Senate, back when Pete Domenici was Budget Chairman. He was this larger-than-life figure who clearly relished the chance to serve and get things done. I learned so much from him, not just on budget issues but also how to be truly committed to your craft. He remains a great inspiration to me,” the Wisconsin Republican said in a statement.

Domenici died Wednesday in Albuquerque, New Mexico, at the age of 85. 

“He is out of pain and we all feel good about that,” the Domenici family said in a statement to the Albuquerque Journal. “We are grateful for all of the people who helped here at the hospital and elsewhere.”

Domenici died at the University of New Mexico hospital in Albuquerque after complications from abdominal surgery, the Journal reported.

“He had a long and notable career, one that took him from pitching on the baseball diamond to teaching mathematics at an Albuquerque junior high school, from city politics to the U.S. Senate,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said on the Senate floor, in announcing his former colleague’s death. 

“Like others in this chamber, I served with Senator Domenici for many years. I came to know him as smart, hard-working and dedicated — and a very strong advocate for his home state of New Mexico. We are all saddened by this news today.”

It is perhaps a testament to how much turnover Congress has faced over the last decade that the number of lawmakers still around who worked with Domenici on major legislation is relatively small.

One of those members is Rep. Joe L. Barton of Texas. The Republican led the House Energy and Commerce Committee while Domenici led the Energy and Natural Resources Committee in the Senate.

“One of my proudest legislative accomplishments is the Energy Policy Act of 2005,” Barton said. “Pete’s wisdom and guidance was felt throughout the process and undoubtedly helped this bill become law. He will be remembered as a strong leader and advocate for his home state of New Mexico.”

Domenici was among the experts in Congress on the federal budget and the budget process, serving as as Budget chairman and a senior member of the Appropriations Committee.

He was the author of multiple budget agreements, and in his post-Senate years he worked with founding Congressional Budget Office Director Alice Rivlin on a bipartisan deficit reduction proposal, testifying before the related so-called supercommittee in 2011.

For a time, Domenici was the single most important person on Capitol Hill when it came to energy policy, and it should be no surprise so much infrastructure was steered to his home state of New Mexico. He served concurrently as the lead Republican on the Energy and Natural Reources Committee and the Energy-Water Appropriations Subcommittee.

“Pete Domenici was a spectacular United States Senator not just for New Mexico, but for the country. His leadership on energy, conservation and budget issues will be admired for a long time. He was a great friend, and we will miss him,” Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander, the current chairman of the Energy-Water subcommittee, said in a statement.

The current chairwoman of the Energy Department’s authorizing panel also praised her former colleague.

“He was … a champion of our national labs and nuclear energy, working to foster a ‘nuclear renaissance’ in this country. Pete was a statesman, a strong family man, and a man I was honored to call my friend,” Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski said in a statement.

A driven yet sensitive man, Domenici would appear genuinely distressed when another senator was angry with him. He was known for being deeply loyal to his staff, treating them like extended family members.

While certainly an “old bull” of the Appropriations Committee, Domenici was also known for loyalty to his colleagues.

“He understands that you don’t do irreparable harm to relationships with anyone,’’ former Republican Sen. Warren B. Rudman of New Hampshire, a close friend, once told The Washington Post.

But for all his legislative accomplishment as a senator, Domenici had a secret that wasn’t revealed until 2013, well after his retirement. He had fathered a child with the daughter of Nevada Republican Sen. Paul Laxalt. Their child, Adam Laxalt, is the current attorney general of Nevada. 

Former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who was for years Domenici’s counterpart at the Energy-Water subcommittee, went so far as to refuse to speak to Domenici after the revelation.

Material from CQ’s Politics in America was used in this report.

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