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Akaka’s retirement creates hiccup in roll call

    For years the name of Hawaii Sen. Daniel Akaka, easy on both the ears and tongue, has signaled the start of a roll call vote in the U.S. Senate. With Akaka's retirement, the top alphabetical spot falls to another. Akaka, center, shared a laugh with colleagues Dec. 11 at the U.S. Capitol in Washington.

WASHINGTON » It is a name that has echoed prominently through the Senate for years, even though most Americans know very little about the person himself.

"Mr. Akaka. …"

It has been both a signal for something starting to happen — a roll-call vote — or for nothing at all happening as the Senate drifts into another aimless quorum call and the legislative clerk dutifully ticks off the attendance list.

"Mr. Akaka. …"

Sen. Daniel K. Akaka, a humble man long overshadowed by his better-known Hawaii colleague, Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, who died last week, has for more than a decade been first among equals in the Senate in at least one regard: the alphabet.

In that position, his name has touched off innumerable votes and other Senate procedures, the intonation amplified by C-SPAN to televisions, radios and now computers around the nation and the world.

"Mr. Akaka. …"

It rolls rhythmically off the clerk’s tongue, a cadence so familiar in the marbled chamber that it is like a legislative lullaby.

Some who pay close attention to the Senate said they often found it soothing or reassuring to hear Akaka’s name announced. It meant that even though the Senate was probably once again stuck on some partisan point, at least the procedural wheels were grinding.

Those whose job it was to say the name again and again took real pleasure in it.

"It became very natural saying his name because of the three syllables, the first soft one and the two hard ones," said David J. Tinsley, a longtime legislative clerk who called Akaka’s name hundreds of times before leaving the Senate in 2008. "It just kind of settled in. That is the one I will always remember when I think of calling the roll."

Now, the Akaka era is coming to an end. Akaka, 88, is retiring, departing not long after the death of Inouye, who was born just four days before him in 1924. It is a huge change for Hawaii, which was represented in the Senate since 1963 by Inouye, a legendary figure both in Hawaii and Washington, and since May 1990 by Akaka after his appointment to the unexpired term of the late Sen. Spark Matsunaga and subsequent election to three full terms.

And it will be a change for the Senate as well, not only in the loss of two popular Democratic colleagues but also for the role Akaka played in the roll.

"It is almost as if he were part of the Senate procedure," said Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who is now in line to lead off the roll after Akaka departs with the start of the 113th Congress on Jan. 3. "It is like a page will be missing from the rule book. It is unsettling, and it is going to take a little getting used to."

Akaka has not been No. 1 his entire tenure. Spencer Abraham, R-Mich., came along in 1995 and took over the top spot. But he was defeated in 2000 by a Demo­crat, Debbie Stabenow, clearing the way for Akaka’s return to the top of the order.

"I have always been proud about it, and I am going to miss it," Akaka said of his alpha-Senate status. "The clerk told me the other day, ‘Wow, I am going to miss calling your name.’"

While myriad others have led off the roll call over the years, there is something about Akaka’s name that made it stand out. Perhaps it is the rhythm. Maybe it is because it is the same forward and backward, perfect in an institution that seems to go backward as much as forward. And it is spelled with only two letters.

"I tell people if you want to remember my name, it is three aces and two kings," Akaka said.

Unlike Inouye, Akaka is far from a national figure. He was the first Native Hawaiian elected to the Senate, led the Veterans Affairs Committee for a time and worked closely with Inouye on home-state issues and projects. He is probably best known for pursuing a measure to win federal recognition for Native Hawaiians that he was able to get through the House while a member but that stalled in the Senate.

He is also known internally for picking out the hymn at the weekly Senate prayer breakfast.

"He is a wonderful man, and we will miss him," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.

And they will also miss the familiar sound of his name.

"Mr. Akaka. …"

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