Former Sen. Pete Domenici, who championed balanced budgets, nuclear energy and parity for mental illnesses in health insurance during his six terms in office, died Wednesday morning in Albuquerque, N.M.
The New Mexico Republican was 85. His death was confirmed by his son Pete Domenici Jr.’s law office and announced on the Senate floor by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who also tweeted the news:
Pietro Vichi Domenici was born in Albuquerque in 1932, the son of Italian immigrants. In one of his final Senate speeches, he revealed his mother had been in the country illegally.
He played Minor League Baseball for a while as a pitcher. After serving on the Albuquerque City Commission, he lost a bid for New Mexico governor, then was elected to an open U.S. Senate seat in 1972. (Other notables in that year’s freshman class included Joe Biden, Jesse Helms and Sam Nunn.)
Domenici rose to become chairman of the Budget Committee, leading the fight for spending cuts and a balanced federal budget. In 1995, he announced his sponsorship of “the first balanced budget in about 25 years. I’m very proud of that,” he said at the time.
Speaker of the House Paul Ryan called Domenici a “larger-than-life figure who clearly relished the chance to serve and get things done. I learned so much from him, not just on budget issues but also how to be truly committed to your craft. He remains a great inspiration to me.”
Domenici also chaired the Energy and Natural Resources Committee and was a senior member of the Appropriations Committee, where he advocated for nuclear energy and money for his state’s nuclear laboratories and military bases. Former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat, tweeted that Domenici was “a political giant.”
Domenici was also a longtime proponent of treating mental illness the same as other diseases in health insurance, a cause brought on by his daughter’s diagnosis of schizophrenia. He worked with the late Minnesota Democratic Sen. Paul Wellstone on the issue, and after Wellstone was killed in a plane crash in 2002, Domenici partnered with Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass. The measure finally passed in 2008.
Domenici was reprimanded by the Senate Ethics Committee in 2008 for creating “an appearance of impropriety” for his involvement in the George W. Bush administration’s firings of nine U.S. attorneys, including David Iglesias in New Mexico.
Domenici decided not to seek a seventh term, announcing he had been diagnosed with a degenerative brain disease.
In 2013, Domenici revealed he had had an extramarital affair with Michelle Laxalt, who was the daughter of his former Senate colleague Paul Laxalt. Their son, Adam Laxalt, was elected attorney general of Nevada in 2014.
After he retired from the Senate, Domenici worked with the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington.