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Former Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker Dies

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(FOXNEWS) -- Former Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker, R-Tenn., has died. He was 88 years old.

Senate leaders announced Baker's death Thursday afternoon on the Senate floor.

First elected to the Senate in 1966, Baker emerged as one of the most central figures in Republican Party politics after a remarkably fast rise.

By the end of his first term in the Senate, President Richard Nixon courted Baker for a seat on the Supreme Court. But when Baker took too long to decide whether he wanted it, Nixon offered the position to William Rehnquist instead.

Rehnquist later became chief justice of the United States.

In 1973, Baker gained national prominence - and found himself working against his former ally - when he served as the vice chairman of the Senate Watergate Committee. During the panel's proceedings, Baker famously asked: "What did the president know, and when did he know it?"

Political insiders considered the Tennessee Republican to be a frontrunner to become President Gerald Ford's running mate in 1976. But Ford ultimately offered the vice presidential candidacy to Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan., instead. The decision surprised many political observers.

A year later, Baker became the Senate minority leader. As the chief negotiator on behalf of the Senate Republicans, he played a key role in the passage of the Panama Canal Treaty, which gradually transferred control of the canal to Panama.

After vice presidential speculation during the 1976 election, Baker ran in the 1980 Republican presidential primary. However, he ultimately dropped out due to poor performances in the early primary states.

But with Ronald Reagan's rise to the White House that year, Baker became the Senate majority leader after Republicans made historic gains in Congress, scoring control of the chamber in 1980.

Baker decided not to run for reelection in 1984 to return to practicing law in Tennessee. President Reagan awarded Baker the Presidential Medal of Freedom to mark his 18 years of accomplishments in the Senate. The medal is the nation's highest civilian honor.

Three years later, Reagan tapped Baker to become his chief of staff in the waning time of his second term. Many viewed the move as an attempt to mend relations with the Senate, which returned to Democratic control in 1986.

In 2001, President George W. Bush appointed Baker as the U.S. ambassador to Japan. After completing his term in 2005, Baker returned to Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz, the law firm his grandfather founded. Baker served as senior counsel after formerly practicing there with his father early in his career.

Baker also co-founded the Bipartisan Policy Center in 2007 with Dole and former Senate Majority Leaders Tom Daschle, D-S.D., and George Mitchell, D-Maine.  

Baker first entered politics in 1950 by managing his father's successful campaign for the House of Representatives. Working on Capitol Hill also led him to his first wife, Joy Dirksen, who was the daughter of the legendary Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen, R-Ill.

After 42 years of marriage, Baker lost Joy Dirksen to cancer in 1993. Baker later remarried in 1996 to Sen. Nancy Kassebaum, R-Kan.

President Barack Obama released a statement: "Michelle and I were saddened to hear about the passing of Howard Baker. Howard was many things over the course of his career - from Senate Majority Leader, to White House Chief of Staff, to Ambassador.  Yet, it was his ability to broker compromise and his unofficial role as the "Great Conciliator" that won him admirers across party lines, over multiple generations, and beyond the state he called home.  Over an 18-year Senate career, Howard fought for the people of Tennessee and helped lead America through difficult times. Our thoughts and prayers go out to Howard's wife Nancy and the entire Baker family."

Gov. Bill Haslam also released a statement: "Tennessee has lost a hero and a distinguished statesman, and I have lost a friend and mentor.  Howard Baker made Tennesseans proud, and he taught me an important lesson when I worked for him 35 years ago.  Anytime he was sitting across the desk from someone in disagreement, he told himself to keep in mind: You know the other fellow might be right. Whether at home, in business or in politics, that is always good advice to consider.  Nancy, Cissy, Derek and his entire family are in Crissys and my thoughts and prayers."


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