A Senate Appropriations Committee meeting chaired by Daniel K. Inouye is a little like going to church.

Participants are dressed in their Sunday best, no one speaks unless spoken to, and everybody shows up out of fear that his or her absence will be frowned upon.

Even Inouye’s voice — sonorous, deep — and his evenly paced words carry the authority of a highly revered figure.

“This committee will come to order,” said Inouye to a crowded conference room at the State Capitol on Wednesday. “Aloha.”

He may as well have added, “You may be seated,” because everyone stood when he walked into the room.

Now the longest-serving senator and third in line for the presidency, Inouye, who is seeking his ninth term in office this November, remains a master of both Hawaii and Washington politics.

Inouye came to the Capitol to hear how $1.8 billion in federal stimulus money was being spent locally. The senator had convened a similar hearing a year ago and wanted to follow up.

What he heard from the 17 witnesses called to testify — officials from the U.S. military, federal offices, the administration of Gov. Linda Lingle and the University of Hawaii System, as well as executives from telecom, utility, health care and energy companies — was essentially the same: Thanks for the money, sir, may we have some more.

Inouye’s invariable response: “I can assure you I will do what I can.”

Inouye acknowledged that the mood in D.C. these days is to cut spending, not increase it. But when Dan Inouye says he will do what he can, it’s a good bet he will. He’s been at the heart of Hawaii politics since before Hawaii was a state.

Inouye’s New Stature

Inouye’s prestige has grown further since the recent death of his longtime friend and mentor, Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia, at the age of 92. Inouye replaced Byrd as Senate Pro Tempore, just as Inouye had replaced him on the appropriations committee two years ago as Byrd’s health began to fail.

Inouye said it’s taken getting used to the new 24-7 security detail that came with the pro tem job. He can’t just walk into Zippy’s for a bite to eat — “They have to case the joint,” he says.

At the Senate hearing, deputy sheriffs stood guard outside the committee room, while inside agents with communication devices connected to their ears kept a sharp eye on possible riffraff.

Inouye, who turns 86 in September, seems at the top of his game, based on watching him lead a hearing for the better part of a morning:

  • Inouye is focused, engaged and well-versed on the issues. He asks good questions, does not trip over his words, and relies little on notes or the input of aides (who make certain the senator’s diet soda is replenished). Inouye took no break during a three-hour hearing.

(Sen. Daniel Akaka, who does not sit on the appropriations committee, joined Inouye for the first part of the hearing but left after about an hour.)

  • When listening to testimony, Inouye pays attention. He often puts his left hand to his chin, with the index finger raised. Well aware that some are intimidated by the power of his office and his legendary status, he subtly makes people feel at ease when talking to him. When Dan Inouye cracks a joke — it happens often — everybody laughs. (It would be almost sinful not too.)

  • Inouye wears a hearing aide, his face is heavily freckled, and his hair shows little gray. He smiles more than one might think, and he often has a twinkle in his eye. And though he walks with a cane, he sometimes swings it playfully back and forth when at a standstill.

Perhaps Inouye is putting on his best game face for the reporters and cameras. Just the day before he formally filed his nomination papers to run for re-election, and campaign ads (“Re-elect Dan”) have begun to surface on TV.

But that’s unlikely. Inouye holds a 68-20 percent lead over his likely Republican opponent this fall, with the rest undecided or preferring another candidate.

A Full Agenda

The senator was in town for business — not only the Senate hearing but escorting the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission around the state. The idea was to show the FCC first hand the telecommunications challenges Hawaii’s rural, mountainous terrain poses, especially for emergency first-responders.

Other priorities remain clear as well. During the hearing, Inouye expressed the most concern about job creation and retention from the stimulus money, and how it helped military readiness. (His first witness was Brigadier General Darrell Williams from U.S. Pacific Command.)

As powerful as he is, Inouye doesn’t always get what he wants. His wish to have the U.S. Postal Service hold field hearings in Hawaii and Alaska about possible cuts in delivery was turned down. (For now.)

But another goal, the passage of the Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act, may be near after a 10-year struggle.

Following the Senate hearing, Inouye announced to reporters that he and Akaka had achieved a compromise with the Lingle administration, and that a vote on the so-called Akaka bill could happen as early as this month.

As the reporters jotted, recorded and filmed, Inouye also riffed on Lingle’s veto of civil unions, noting that he was old enough to remember opposition to the marriage of men and women of different races. Coming from a man who joined the U.S. Army at a time when 120,000 Japanese Americans were held in internment camps, the comment carried tremendous weight.

“All men are created equal,” he explained. “Big, small, fat, thin, gay, heterosexual.”

And with that, Daniel Ken Inouye — born Sept.7, 1924, son of Hyotaro and Kame Inouye, a Nisei and Medal of Honor recipient and wounded veteran of World War II — was off to Zippy’s for a bowl of chili.

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