Rep. Robert Matsui, D-Calif., a World War II internee who rose to become one of the top Asian Americans in Congress during 26 years of service, died Saturday, his office announced...

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WASHINGTON — Rep. Robert Matsui, D-Calif., a World War II internee who rose to become one of the top Asian Americans in Congress during 26 years of service, died Saturday, his office announced yesterday. He was 63.

One of his party’s leading spokesmen on tax and Social Security issues, Rep. Matsui was hospitalized at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., on Dec. 24, suffering from pneumonia. His office said he had been diagnosed several months ago with myelodysplastic syndrome, a rare bone-marrow disease.

Rep. Matsui, a senior Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, was expected to be one of his party’s leaders in the battle anticipated in Congress this year over President Bush’s proposal to overhaul Social Security.

He also looked out for the interests of his Sacramento-area district and California, using his position on the Ways and Means Committee to push for measures such as one sought by the state’s wine industry to suspend a century-old federal tax on manufacturers and retailers of alcoholic beverages. He got the measure included in the recently passed corporate-tax overhaul.

Rep. Matsui generally backed Democratic legislation, but his support for global trade put him at odds with members of his party on some high-profile measures.

He was re-elected with ease to his 14th term in November. A special election is expected to be called to choose a successor.

Rep. Matsui was remembered yesterday as a skilled legislator and political strategist.

Bush said Rep. Matsui “served with distinction and integrity” and “was a leader of his party admired by colleagues on both sides of the aisle.”

New York Rep. Charles Rangel, top Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee, called Rep. Matsui a champion of protecting Social Security. “We never imagined we would have to go into a major debate on Social Security’s future without him,” he said.

Born Sept. 17, 1941, in Sacramento, Rep. Matsui was 6 months old when he and his family were interned with thousands of other Japanese Americans at the Tule Lake camp in California, a response to Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor.

Later, as a congressman, he broke into sobs during a House hearing as he described the 3-1/2 years he and his family spent under guard. He co-sponsored a 1988 law that led to the U.S. government paying $1.6 billion in reparations to 82,219 Japanese-American internees.

Rep. Matsui is survived by his wife, a son and a granddaughter.