JOHN MURTHA (1932-2010)…. A statement released this afternoon:

Congressman John P. Murtha (PA-12) passed away peacefully this afternoon at 1:18 p.m. at Virginia Hospital Center in Arlington, VA. At his bedside was his family.

Murtha, 77, was Chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense.

First elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in February of 1974, Murtha dedicated his life to serving his country both in the military and in the halls of Congress. A former Marine, he became the first Vietnam War combat Veteran elected to the U.S. Congress.

This past Saturday, February 6, 2010, Murtha became Pennsylvania’s longest serving Member of Congress.

Murtha’s career — both as a war hero and as an accomplished lawmaker — has been rather extraordinary, but when I think of him, I immediately turn to the moment in 2005 when Murtha decided he’d made a mistake in supporting the war in Iraq and began calling for an end to the conflict. It made him a hero to many the Bush administration’s critics, but just as important, Murtha’s stand represented something of a turning point — if someone of his reputation, stature, and experience, especially on defense issues, came to believe the war was a mistake, it made it easier for others to reach the same conclusion.

For his trouble, Republicans literally accused Murtha — a decorated combat veteran — of “giving aid and comfort to the enemy.” Murtha nevertheless refused to back down. It was a defining characteristic of his adult life.

As for what happens next to his congressional seat, there will apparently be a special election, and given recent trends, it appears Pennsylvania’s 12th will be a pick-up opportunity for Republicans, which in turn may make approving legislation like health care reform that much more difficult. [Update: Chris Cillizza reports: “According to state law, the governor has ten days once the vacancy is officially declared to decide on the date of a special election, which can come no sooner than 60 days following that proclamation. That likely means the special election will be held on May 18, which is the date already set for federal primaries around the state.”]

But those additional angles will be fleshed out in time. For today, it’s enough to say that Congress has lost one of its bravest leaders, and his presence on the Hill will be missed.

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.