Mr. Rudman, an Army combat veteran of the Korean War and former New Hampshire attorney general, was first elected to Congress in 1980 and became known as the straight-talking ethical conscience of the Senate. His nickname, according to Senate colleagues, was “Sledgehammer.”
After not seeking reelection in 1992, Mr. Rudman remained a presence in Washington as a member of several blue-ribbon panels investigating terrorism and financial irregularities. In February 2001, seven months before the Sept. 11 attacks, a panel led by Mr. Rudman and former senator Gary Hart (D-Colo.) warned of a probable terrorist strike on U.S. soil within 25 years. The panel called for the creation of a “homeland security agency,” which occurred in 2002.
During his first years in the Senate, Mr. Rudman was a reliable supporter of the policies of President Ronald Reagan, a fellow Republican. But the senator soon began to exhibit an independent streak not limited by partisan loyalty.
He was a sponsor of the landmark budget-cutting legislation known as the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Act. He grilled Oliver L. North and other Reagan administration operatives involved in the Iran-contra arms-for-hostages deal, questioned fellow senators involved in the Keating Five savings-and-loan scandal, and successfully promoted the nomination of his New Hampshire protege, David H. Souter, to the Supreme Court in 1990.
“In two terms, he had as great an impact as any senator that I’ve known,” former senator William S. Cohen (R-Maine), a colleague who later served as defense secretary in the Clinton administration, said in an interview. “That was by the force of his intellect and the force of his personality.”
Mr. Rudman was among the first members of Congress to speak out about the rising federal debt, which he believed was a threat to bankrupt the country. Alarmed by an annual deficit that had reached a record $200 billion in 1985 under Reagan — the annual figure now exceeds $1 trillion — Mr. Rudman joined Sens. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.) and Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.) as principal sponsors of the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Balanced Budget Act of 1985.
The act, often shortened to Gramm-Rudman, called for a balanced federal budget within six years and was the first substantive effort by Congress in modern times to compel reductions in the federal deficit.
Under Gramm-Rudman, automatic budget cuts — called sequestrations — would be imposed by the U.S. comptroller general if certain spending limits were not met. The bill drew howls of protest across the political landscape, from social liberals to defense hawks.
Even Mr. Rudman was lukewarm about Gramm-Rudman, piquantly calling it “a bad idea whose time has come.”