By Dana Bash and Mark Preston
(CNN) — Sen. Frank Lautenberg, the New Jersey Democrat who was the U.S. Senate’s last surviving World War II veteran, died Monday of viral pneumonia, his office announced.
Lautenberg, 89, missed key Senate votes late last year during a weeks-long absence because of a cold that turned into what he called a “severe case of bronchitis with fluid in the chest.”
He announced in a statement in February that he would not seek re-election next year, but he continued to push for stronger gun control laws in his final months in the Senate.
After last month’s Boston Marathon bombings, Lautenberg announced plans to reintroduce legislation to require background checks for sales of explosive powder.
An influential veteran legislator, Lautenberg was associated with major legislative achievements, according to the statement by his office, including the ban on smoking on airplanes, preventing domestic abusers from possessing guns, cracking down on drunk driving and the “Toxic Right to Know” law about pollutants being released into communities.
“Frank Lautenberg has been one of the most productive senators in the history of this country,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, declared in December 2011 on the occasion of Lautenberg’s 9,000th vote, the statement by his office said.
The son of Russian and Polish immigrants, Lautenberg grew up in Paterson, New Jersey, and enlisted in the military at age 18, his office said. He was a member of the United States Army Signal Corps from 1942 to 1946, according to his biography.
After the military, he graduated from Columbia University with the help of the GI Bill, then joined with two boyhood friends to start Automatic Data Processing, or ADP, which today employs 57,000 people worldwide, including 4,500 in New Jersey, Lautenberg’s office said.
Survivors include his wife, Bonnie Englebardt Lautenberg; six children; and 13 grandchildren, the office statement said.
Lautenberg was first elected to the Senate in 1982 and won re-election twice. He did not seek re-election in 2000 when his third term expired, but was recruited to run again two years later after Democratic Sen. Robert Torricelli quit his re-election bid weeks before the polls opened amid reports of ethical issues. Lautenberg was then re-elected in 2008.
According to New Jersey law, Republican Gov. Chris Christie can appoint a temporary replacement to serve until a special election in November or fill the rest of Lautenberg’s term, which expires next year.
With the likelihood that Christie will appoint a Republican, the Democratic majority in the 100-member Senate would decrease to 52, along with two independents who caucus with the Democrats.
CNN’s Susan Candiotti, Robert Yoon and Paul Steinhauser contributed to this report.