Despite his retirement announcement yesterday, public health groups are hoping that Sen. Frank Lautenberg doesn't disappear quietly into the New Jersey sunset.
At least not until he has completed a years-long effort to overhaul the nation's chemical regulation system.
The New Jersey Democrat will officially announce today in his birthplace of Paterson, N.J., that he will not be seeking re-election when his term ends in 2014, ending months of speculation that the 89-year-old lawmaker might retire.
But in a statement yesterday, Lautenberg said that it was "not the end of anything, but rather the beginning of a two-year mission to pass new gun safety laws, protect children from toxic chemicals, and create more opportunities for working families in New Jersey."
"While I may not be seeking re-election, there is plenty of work to do before the end of this term and I'm going to keep fighting as hard as ever for the people of New Jersey in the U.S. Senate," he said.
That gave environmentalists both on and off Capitol Hill confidence that Lautenberg would keep up his efforts to enact public health legislation, notably through a bill to reform the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). Lautenberg is expected to reintroduce his "Safe Chemicals Act" soon for action this year.
"I think the senator has already approached this issue with great urgency, which millions across the country share. The announcement just underscores it," said Andy Igrejas, director of the advocacy group Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families. "We expect the Senate will act this year, leaving plenty of opportunity to bring this all the way through in this Congress."
And Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), who serves with Lautenberg on the Environment and Public Works Committee, laughed off the idea that the pending retirement would affect the TSCA reform effort.
"He's still got two years here!" Cardin said yesterday. "He's a very aggressive guy. We should get it done."
Long health legacy
Lautenberg, who served five nonconsecutive terms after a successful business career, had a long legacy of working on public health and environmental issues, notably an effort in the 1980s to ban smoking on airplanes. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the EPW Committee, described him as "one of the great senators," while praising his work on clean air and chemicals.
"He stood up for those without a voice," Boxer said, adding that he was a "self-made man who never forgot where he started."
Lautenberg was first elected to the Senate in 1982 and served three terms before retiring. When Sen. Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.) dropped his re-election bid just weeks before Election Day in 2002 because of federal corruption charges, Lautenberg replaced him on the ballot. He won that bid and a re-election campaign in 2008.
In that time, Lautenberg worked on a number of toxics and public health bills, including the "Toxic Right-to-Know" legislation that created U.S. EPA's Toxic Release Inventory database and forced companies to disclose what chemicals were being released into the air, water and ground. Lautenberg also pushed for the inclusion of the Chemical Safety Board in the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments.
An advocate for cleaning up toxic Superfund sites, Lautenberg in 1986 created the Superfund, Toxics and Environmental Health Subcommittee under the EPW panel, which he chaired until this year. A spokesman said that Lautenberg had picked up a chairmanship on the Appropriations Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government and would be holding onto his post at the top of the Commerce Subcommittee on Surface Transportation and Merchant Marine Infrastructure, Safety, and Security, meaning he had reached the Senate's two-post limit.
He also garnered strong support from environmentalists for backing clean air policies and promoting light rail and Amtrak as part of his work on the Commerce Committee's Transportation Subcommittee.
But the jewel in Lautenberg's public health campaign, if successful, would be a bill overhauling TSCA, the nation's only major environmental statute never to have received a significant congressional update. Lautenberg in 2011 introduced the Safe Chemicals Act, which would require that manufacturers prove their substances are safe before they go on the market, along with other reforms.
That bill cleared the EPW Committee last year but met Republican opposition on the Senate floor and did not move. Groups were hopeful that with an expanded Senate majority for Democrats, it might have more traction this year (E&E Daily, Nov. 8, 2012). Lautenberg's office says he will reintroduce the bill and continue pushing for the reforms.
But Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), the ranking member on the EPW panel, is readying his own counter to Lautenberg's bill that sources say could be out as early as this month. That bill, which has the backing of the American Chemistry Council, could potentially slow down debate on Lautenberg's bill or offer Republicans safe harbor for opposition.
Lautenberg had even recruited help from then-EPW Committee ranking member James Inhofe (R-Okla.) to hold a series of stakeholder meetings, but Inhofe ended up criticizing Lautenberg for rushing the TSCA bill to a vote too soon.
In a statement, Cal Dooley, president and CEO of the American Chemistry Council, said that he hoped his industry could work with the senator in his remaining two years in office to "forge bipartisan legislation that can become law, creating a lasting legacy for Senator Lautenberg."
"While we may not always agree with Senator Lautenberg on the details, we share his commitment to sound chemical regulation, and we respect the passion he has brought to the issue," said Dooley, a former Democratic congressman from California.
Clean chemicals groups said they did not expect Lautenberg's retirement to lessen the push for TSCA reform.
"It is hard to think of a senator who has been less cowed or bamboozled by the chemical industry, even though it is a major economic force in his state," said Daniel Rosenberg of the Natural Resources Defense Council, a former Lautenberg staffer.
And Alex Formuzis, a spokesman for the Environmental Working Group and a former senior aide to Lautenberg, said that when Lautenberg "said today that he plans to focus on overhauling TSCA to protect kids from toxic chemicals before he leaves office, he means it."
"The day Senator Lautenberg first arrived in Washington he made it his mission to protect public health, with a particular focus on children," said Formuzis. "His legislative legacy has benefited literally millions of Americans, from smoke-free air travel to cleaning up Superfund sites, reducing alcohol-related fatalities and keeping guns out of the hands of convicted domestic abusers."
"And if the chemical industry is wondering if it's off the hook, they should go ask their colleagues in the tobacco, alcohol and firearms industries."
Even before Lautenberg announced his retirement, speculation was swirling about a potential Democratic primary fight from Newark Mayor Cory Booker, who has already set up an exploratory committee for the 2014 Senate race. Today's announcement pushes Booker, a rising star in the Democratic Party, to the front of the pack.
In a statement late yesterday, Booker lavished praise on Lautenberg, calling him a role model and mentor, but made no reference to his own political plans.
"Senator Frank Lautenberg has been a champion for the people of New Jersey for decades and his legacy of service will improve the lives of all [Americans] for years to come," Booker said.
Booker isn't likely to have the Democratic field to himself, however -- and New Jersey is a state where party bosses still have plenty of say over the outcome of nomination fights.
Many Democrats believe Rep. Frank Pallone, who has been hungering for the opportunity to run for Senate for years, will enter the race. He finished 2012 with a substantial $3.4 million in his campaign account.
Rep. Rob Andrews, who took 35 percent of the vote against Lautenberg in a tough Democratic primary challenge in 2008, might also look at the race. State Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D) could also run, and state Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D) has set up an exploratory committee.
And one prominent New Jersey name with a strong environmental background and, as of today, no job could also be the center of some speculation: outgoing EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson.
Republicans have not won a Senate race in the Garden State since 1972. But they have one potential high-profile Senate contender of their own: TV personality Geraldo Rivera said recently that he is contemplating the race.
Reporter Manuel Quinones contributed.