Chuck Schumer hated flying, before Frank Lautenberg

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Schumer announcing a database for prescription drug crimes. (Reid Pillifant)
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"Senator [Frank] Lautenberg was a close friend of mine and I'm going to miss him badly," Sen. Chuck Schumer told reporters at his office in midtown this afternoon, shortly before Lautenberg was scheduled to officially announce his impending retirement in Paterson, New Jersey.

"He had passion," Schumer continued. "He was not one of those people who just put his finger to the wind and figured out the political angles. He cared about a lot of things, and he'd focus on specific issues and get them done.

"Every American who flies on an airplane is much better off because of Frank Lautenberg, because he passed the law that said you can't smoke on airplanes. I used to hate going on airplanes because they were filled up with smoke. He stopped that."

Schumer also cited Lautenberg's work to toughen penalties for drunk driving, and "robust" funding for Amtrak in the northeast region.

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Lautenberg isn't retiring immediately; he still has two years left in the Senate, and Schumer said his colleague is still young for his age.

"He's 89, but he's a very young 89," Schumer said. "Until about four years ago, he was evidently skiing--I'm not a skiier--but he was evidently skiing the most difficult slopes in the country."

Schumer also came to the defense of another Senate colleague, Chuck Hagel, whose nomination was filibustered by Republicans yesterday.

"I think what happened yesterday delayed his nomination but will not deny it," he said. "A good number of senators, including some of those leading the fight against the administration on Benghazi, like senators McCain and Graham have said they're going to vote for cloture on the Tuesday--Senator Alexander as well--on the Tuesday when we come back. So I think it delayed his nomination some but won't deny it."

Schumer said the latest old comments from Hagel to emerge, in which Hagel says the State Department is effectively controlled by Israel, won't affect his support.

"It doesn't make me reconsider," Schumer said. "I've talked to Sen. Hagel about some of his previous statements. They were made many many years ago. He regrets them and retracts them."