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Washington mourns Dingell, a 'lion of the House'

U.S. Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Zeeland, at right, keeps this signed photo of him, Reps. John Dingell and Tim Walberg in his office.

Washington — The United States House of Representatives paid tribute to former Rep. John Dingell on Friday with members standing in silence to mark his passing and honor "the dean's" service in the chamber for nearly six decades. 

Outside, the U.S. flags flew at half staff over the U.S. Capitol. Inside, members lined up in the Speaker's Lobby to sign a book of condolences for his family.

In the chamber, the mood felt serious but also jovial, as members reminisced about Dingell's record, courtesy and wit, said Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Zeeland. 

"His is clearly a bygone era. Who would come and spend 59 years like that again?" said Huizenga, who keeps a signed photo of himself and Dingellin his office. "He was an icon. A lion of the House."

Dingell, who died Thursday at 92, served in Congress for longer than any other member in U.S. history. 

"It feels like the end of an era," said Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township.

Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, a longtime friend of Dingell's, announced his passing on the House floor,as members took their seats to listen to speeches from leadership. 

"He fought all of his life for fairness and opportunity for all. He defended vigorously the working men and women of the auto industry and working families everywhere," said Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat. 

"His wit, his humor brought smiles to our faces, and his fearless questions of witnesses in committee brought grimaces to those who believed they had undermined the safety and health of our citizens."

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer

Hoyer told colleagues he was with Dingell in Michigan on Wednesday evening, along with former U.S. Rep. Sandy Levin, D-Royal Oak, who served with Dingell for 36 years, and John Orlando, Dingell's former chief of staff. 

“He remembered all of you. He asked me to give each of you his best, to wish you well, and to say that our country needs each of us to work together," the majority leader said.

"Would that we could leave just some of the legacy that John Dingell has left behind."

'A life we can admire'

House leaders canceled votes for Tuesday, so members may travel to Michigan for Dingell's funeral Mass in Dearborn. 

House Leaders Pay Tribute to Former Dean John Dingell (1926-2019)

Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican, said Dingell was respected not only by Democratic colleagues but across the aisle, too. 

"They went to John for advice. When he walked on the floor, there was many on our side who stood around and questioned where we thought we can go," McCarthy said on the floor.

"Yes, we are sad today, but he lived a life we can admire. I may have a difference of opinion and philosophy with him, but I admired his will to fight for what he believed in. 

"I admired the way he treated people that have different beliefs, and I admired the way he believed all sides should be heard. I speak for everyone on this side of the aisle to convey our deepest sympathies."

Kevin McCarthy

Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Maryland, considered Dingell a "true mentor." They often sat together on the House floor, he said in an interview. 

"I constantly went to him for advice. He would always tell me: Do not get caught up in the small battles. Concentrate on the big war," said Cummings, now chairman of the Committee on Oversight and Reform.

He recalled asking Dingell in his later years if he ever worried about dying. 

"He said, you know, I have one regret: That I have to leave my wife. He said, because she has been everything to me," Cummings said.

"When a guy like Dingell dies, if you were blessed to know him, it's like a piece of you dying, you know? ... He will be missed." 

Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md.

Dingell spent manyyears as chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, whose hearing room on Capitol Hill is named for him. 

McCarthy joked about how Dingell loved his committee "so much he thought they needed no other committee in this House." 

"It wasn't till his retirement that we got jurisdiction back in other places," McCarthy said to laughs. 

Early foe of 'establishment'

Rep. David Price, D-North Carolina, said people often think of Dingell as the epitome of the political establishment, but in his early days Dingell was pushing the committee in new directions and "often fighting establishment forces." 

"For many of his years, he was a maverick and a rebel and gave the chairmen of the Energy and Commerce Committee fits," said Price, a former political science professor at Duke University. 

"Everybody knows how feisty he was and how hard a fighter he was. Of course, as he did become the establishment himself, he distinguished himself as a chairman."

Rep. Jan Shakowsky, D-Illinois, said Dingell taught a lot of members how to question witnesses.

"He was very committed to yes or no answers so that people couldn't wiggle out of," said Shakowsky, who served on Energy and Commerce under Dingell. 

Rep. John Dingell puts his arm around Rep. Fred Upton during a Congressional delegation press conference at the Detroit auto show in 2010, with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.

"You never wanted to be there raising your right hand on the wrong side of the law," said Rep. Fred Upton, a Republican who joined the panel in 1991 under Dingell and later rose to chairman.

"A big pot of coffee, by design, was on that table because he wasn't going to let you leave early," Upton said. 

Upton and Dingell's offices were across the hall from one another and they had a close friendship, often walking to votes together and collaborating on Michigan priorities, such as the auto industry. He last talked to Dingell on Wednesday. 

"I knew him as a staffer, obviously as a colleague, and he was my chairman. But, you know, to the very end, he was more concerned about us than him," Upton said, tearing up. "That's who he was." 

Dingell served as the dean of the House — the member with the longest service — for two decades before retiring in 2014. 

"Settled in back room'

Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, now holds the title of dean. He first met Dingell in 1964: "Long history. Good man." 

Both avid outdoorsmen, the pair became fast friends when Young joined the House in 1973. They hunted and fished together on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. 

"That's when the chairman ran the Congress, and he was the most powerful chairman I dealt with. Everything — any bill — he figured out a way to get jurisdiction over, and a lot of people resented that," Young said. 

"But we worked in passing very good legislation, mostly fish and wildlife legislation. He was very, very strong person. Some people thought he was a bully. I did not. He used his strength on the positive side." 

When they disagreed, they would talk it out. "It was settled, frankly, in the back room," Young said.

Dingell was in office longer than several of the current members of Michigan's delegation have been alive. Dingell was already a legend in Michigan politics when they were growing up.

“In my whole lifetime I can remember John Dingell as part of the government," said Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Southfield. 

"To keep your commitment and to keep your relationships to serve for that long is honorable, and he served well.”

Dingell kept a personal and professional photo archive in his office, including this photo of President Lyndon Johnson handing him a pen after signing a bill.

Freshman Rep. Andy Levin, D-Bloomfield Township, has known Dingell since he was a child. He thought of him as an uncle whose advice he sought many times, including when Levin was weighing a run for office, he said. 

"He was unflinchingly honest, and there was a sort of spiritual gravitas to his counsel. Whatever he advised you to do would never cheapen you and would never be expedient," said Levin, who succeed his father, Sandy, in January. 

"Even if he was a sharp-elbowed political player, he never cheated. He played by the rules. ... If he thought you were going over a line of expediency, he'd say, 'Is that the kind of person you want to be?' I loved him." 

Kildee said the enormity of Dingell's legacy in the House hit him during his first term in office while watching an old black-and-white video of the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. 

"There's President Johnson at the desk, Martin Luther King over his shoulder, then this tall, thin young congressman walks into the picture. It's John Dingell. Lyndon Johnson turns and shakes his hand," Kildee said. 

"Nine hours later, I walk onto the House floor and sit next to him and think, this guy wasn't just a witness to history, he was part of it. And I get to sit there with him. It gave me chills then. It gives me chills every time I think about it." 

Dingell insisted on the Michigan delegation being bipartisan, working together and not interfering with one another's interests, Kildee said. 

He recalled advice that Dingell gave to many members: "'People who make mistakes around here, make mistakes because they think they're important people. You have an important job,' he said. 'That doesn't make you an important person.'"

Freshman Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Holly, said she got to know Dingell only recently, through his wife, U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, who succeeded John in 2015. 

"He represents hopefully not a bygone era of bipartisanship — of saying what you mean and doing it because you believe it, not because it’s a political move or countermove, of passing landmark legislation in a bipartisan fashion," Slotkin said.

"That’s the best of what this body can be and there’s too few John Dingells.”

Slotkin is looking to potentially start a fellowship in Dingell's honor in her office for " a young person come in who best represents the values that Dingell represented here in the House," she said. 

"I really hope to have the opportunity to try to live up to the legacy of John Dingell. Even just a fraction of it would be an impressive feat," Slotkin said.