Mr. Lautenberg, a Democrat, died as a result of complications from viral pneumonia at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell, his office said. He had decided not to run for another term next year.
On Feb. 18, 2010, his office announced that he had stomach cancer. Dr. James F. Holland, an oncologist at Mount Sinai Medical Center in Manhattan, said then that he expected the senator to make a “full and complete recovery.”
First elected in 1982 at age 58 after a successful business career, Mr. Lautenberg served three terms, retired and instantly regretted the decision. When Senator Robert G. Torricelli made a last-minute decision not to seek re-election in 2002, Mr. Lautenberg ran in his place and won the seat. He was re-elected in 2008.
“He leaves behind an amazing legacy of pushing for the rights of the working poor and middle class,” said Senator Steve Sweeney, a Democrat who is the president of the New Jersey Senate. “While a man of means, he never, ever lost sight of helping working people. He will be missed.”
Under New Jersey law, Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican who is running for re-election, will appoint a temporary replacement for Mr. Lautenberg’s seat. A special election will be held later this year with Newark Mayor Cory Booker, who had already declared his intention to run next year, the most likely Democratic candidate. The winner of the special election would still have to run in 2014 for a full six-yer term.
Never a flashy senator — his colleagues Bill Bradley and Mr. Torricelli got more attention — Mr. Lautenberg acquired influence on the Appropriations Committee and had a consistently liberal voting record. Americans for Democratic Action said he had voted liberal 94 percent of the time.
Mr. Lautenberg’s first major victory came in 1984. A freshman senator in the minority party, he pushed through a provision to establish a national drinking age of 21, a measure that threatened to cut 10 percent of a state’s federal highway funds if it did not comply. He argued that the change would save lives by ending “a crazy quilt of drinking ages in neighboring states” and prevent those under 21 from driving over “blood borders” to get drunk and then try to drive home.
“He had to fight like hell to get it through,” Jay A. Winsten, associate dean of the Harvard School of Public Health, said in an interview. “The estimates are that the cumulative lives saved are in excess of 25,000.”
Mr. Lautenberg followed that move 16 years later with another condition on highway spending: that states must designate 0.08 percent blood alcohol as the level that would constitute being drunk.
In 1989, he led a successful fight to ban smoking on all commercial airline flights. Mr. Lautenberg, once a two-pack-a-day smoker, told the Senate: “With this legislation, nonsmokers, including children and infants, will be free from secondhand smoke. Working flight attendants will avoid a hazard that has jeopardized their health and their jobs.”
He followed up with later legislation, in this case prohibiting smoking in federal buildings and in all federally financed places that serve children.
Mr. Lautenberg’s other legislative achievements include a 1996 law denying gun ownership to people who have committed domestic violence. He was also the author of legislation requiring that by 2012 all cargo destined for United States ports be screened for nuclear material, a requirement that both the Bush and the Obama administrations have said cannot be met.
Another Lautenberg measure gave refugee status to people from historically persecuted groups without requiring them to show that they had been singled out. The senator estimated that 350,000 to 400,000 Jews entered the United States under that 1990 law. Evangelical Christians from the former Soviet Union also benefited from the law.