Lawmakers mourn death of Sen. Bentsen

Capitol Hill is mourning the loss of a moderate Democrat known for his bipartisanship after beloved former Texas senator and Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen died yesterday.

Bentsen, 85, passed away in the morning at his Houston home from natural causes. He had been in poor health since 1998 after suffering two strokes.

Bentsen represented the Lone Star State for 28 years, serving in the House from 1948 to 1955 and in the Senate from 1971 to 1993. He was also former President Clinton’s first treasury secretary from 1993 to 1994. He was known as a courtly, dispassionate negotiator and tended to be a pro-business Democrat.

After retiring from the House, he ran a financial holding company before he decided to resume his political career in 1970 with a run for the Senate. He defeated George H.W. Bush, who had been a member of the House. Bentsen went on to hold several prominent positions in the upper chamber as chairman of the Finance Committee, chairman of the Joint Economic Committee and head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. He resigned in 1993.

“I appreciated his leadership to expand opportunities for exports” with the North American Free Trade Agreement and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade “and to enhance retirement security in America with pensions and IRAs,” Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said in a statement yesterday. 

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) said yesterday that she admired Bentsen and his efforts to support her husband’s deficit-reduction program of the early 1990s.

Bentsen was “sort of the last of a breed,” said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa). Bentsen, socially liberal but fiscally conservative, was part of the Lyndon B. Johnson group of politicians from the 1950s and 1960s, Harkin said.

In 1976, Bentsen unsuccessfully ran for the Democratic presidential nomination. In 1988, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, the Democratic nominee for president, chose Bentsen as his running mate.

Bentsen took a famous jab at his GOP vice-presidential opponent, Indiana Sen. Dan Quayle, during a debate after Quayle likened his own Senate experience to that of former President John F. Kennedy.

“I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy,” Bentsen said.

Dukakis lost the 1988 election to Bush, Bentsen’s old rival for the Senate seat.

“He was one of the last of the real conservative, pro-business Democratic leaders,” Rep. Ralph Hall (R-Texas) said in a statement yesterday. “Senator Bentsen worked well with both parties.”