Sen. Frank Lautenberg's death this morning presents New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie with both a political opportunity and a partisan dilemma.
Christie now has an opportunity to appoint a successor who would have the huge advantage of running for election in 2014 as an incumbent.
But does the Republican governor appoint a Democrat -- say Newark's popular Mayor Corey Booker -- and burnish his reputation as an old-school Republican willing to work across the aisle, the image he presented he won after Sandy by famously surveying the storm damage with Barack Obama and applauding the Democratic president for coming to Jersey's aid?
Or does Christie appoint a good Republican in a bid to assuage Republicans who vilified him for embracing a Democratic president during a re-election campaign?
Whichever way he goes, the appointment won't do much to change the dynamics in the Senate. With Republicans using the filibuster as a weapon of mass obstruction, it takes 60 votes to get anything passed. And while Democrats will retain a slim majority either way, a Democratic replacement would not make that majority filibuster-proof.
Partisan gamesmanship aside, Lautenberg served his state and the nation long and honorably. He was first elected to the Senate in 1982, won re-election twice, and then, after electing not to run in 2000, was recruited to run for the seat again in 2002, after ethical issues forced then-Democratic Sen. Robert Torricelli to abandon his re-election bid.
Lautenberg was known for legislation that touched most American's lives, for instance, raising the federal drinking age to 21, and banning smoking on commercial airline flights -- a law often credited with changing the paradigm and ushering in increased restrictions on smoking in public places.
Lautenberg, who survived a bout with blood cancer in 2010, announced in February that he wouldn't seek re-election in 2014. But his death marked the end of an era. He was the last World War II veteran serving in the Senate and, at age 89, the body's oldest member.
If Christie decides to select a Republican replacement, he should look for a kindred spirit who will put getting things done for the American people before partisan advantage. The Senate needs more of that brand of Republican.