By Alexander Bolton and Jonathan Easley - 12/17/12 10:53 PM EST
Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), who was the most senior member of the upper chamber and third in line for the presidency, died Monday at the age of 88.
The senator's final word was "Aloha," according to his office.
Inouye was hospitalized early last week after having difficulty breathing and was reported over the weekend to be in stable condition at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.
“I rise today with a heavy heart; my friend Dan Inouye just died,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said on the Senate floor Monday evening. “I’ve never known anyone like Dan Inouye … the kindness he’s shown me since my time here in the Senate is something I will cherish always ... We'll all miss him, and I wish I were capable of saying more, but that's all I can say."
Senators in the Capitol expressed shock and grief over his passing.
Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), informed by reporters, remained silent for several seconds. "Such an extraordinary man," Wyden said as they headed toward the Senate floor together.
Inouye was third in line for the presidency as president pro tem of the Senate. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the next most senior senator, now takes that slot.
Leahy said he was too distraught to discuss the loss of his friend of four decades and would discuss it later on the floor.
"It's torn me apart," he told reporters.
Colleague after colleague offered warm memories of Inouye. The word "hero" was used repeatedly.
"Sen. Daniel Inouye was a man who rarely called attention to himself but who lived a remarkable American life filled with the dignity and grace of a true hero," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in a statement.
"Tonight, our country has lost a true American hero with the passing of Sen. Daniel Inouye," said President Obama in a statement. He added Inouye was "not just a colleague and a mentor, but someone revered by all of us lucky enough to know him."
Inouye was a distinctive if understated presence in the Senate, who lost his right arm while assaulting three machine gun positions during fighting near San Terenzo, Italy, during World War II. He was awarded the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart and the Distinguished Service Cross. President Clinton later awarded him the Medal of Honor.
Inouye was born in Hawaii and dreamed of a medical career as a young man. He served as a medical volunteer during the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor and set aside ambitions of becoming a surgeon to volunteer for the Army in 1943. He was assigned to the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, made up mostly of Japanese-American soldiers, one of the most highly decorated units of World War II.
Inouye began his political career in 1954 when he was elected to the Territorial House of Representatives, where he climbed to the post of majority leader. He was elected to the House of Representatives and took office on Aug. 21, 1959, the same date Hawaii became a state. He ran for Senate and won in 1962 and went on to win eight reelections. He was the first Japanese-American to serve in each chamber.
He was a member of the Senate Watergate Committee in the 1970s and was the first chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee in 1976.
Inouye also served as chairman of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, taking the spot in 2009 after the late Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) stepped down from the post. He played a central role in crafting the 2009 American Recovery Act, one of the signature initiatives of Obama's first term, and passed the final war supplemental spending bill during his first 120 days as chairman.
"I feel so bad about his passing. He was truly a great American who gave so much to his country, a true hero of World War II and an extraordinary individual," Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said.
"Ironically, we were just having an appropriations meeting when we got the news. He was an extraordinary leader of that committee as well. I'll miss him greatly."
Leahy also is expected to take over the Appropriations gavel, which would set off changes in the chairmanships of the Judiciary and Select Intelligence panels.
One of Inouye's last acts was to oversee the writing of an emergency spending bill for the victims of Hurricane Sandy, which Senate leaders expect to debate this week.
He had planned to run for another term in the Senate when his office was up in 2016. Instead Gov. Neil Abercrombie (D) will name a temporary replacement until a special election can be held in 2014, when Hawaii voters will choose a senator to serve the remainder of Inouye's term.
Hawaii suffered a double blow this year, losing all its seniority in one cycle. Besides Inouye's death, Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii) is retiring after five terms.
Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) said it was hard for him to believe that Inouye and Akaka would no longer be representing Hawaii.
"He is probably the passing of an era here," Kyl said. "Nobody else goes back that far here. Even those who are a little bit older here, the Hatches and Grassleys and folks like that, they're a different era than Dan Inouye. To some extent, it really does represent an era being put in the history books."
Akaka honored his late colleague in a speech on the Senate floor.
“Tomorrow will be the first day since Hawaii became a state in 1959 that Dan Inouye will not be representing us," Akaka said. “He really worked to shape Hawaii and this great country.
“You’ll be missed in Washington as much as you’ll be missed in Hawaii. Rest in peace.”
Inouye's wife of 57 years, Maggie, died of cancer in 2006. He married Irene Hirano in 2008. He is also survived by his son, Ken Inouye, and granddaughter Mary Margaret "Maggie" Inouye.
— Ramsey Cox, Bernie Becker, Alexandra Jaffe and Ben Geman contributed.
— This story was last updated at 7:15 p.m.