Former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who helped shepherd former President Barack Obama’s landmark health care law through Congress, has died at the age of 82.
The Democratic Senate leader had battled pancreatic cancer and left the Senate after suffering an injury that left him without much of his sight in one eye. While serving in the upper chamber of Congress, he oversaw one of the Senate’s most significant changes in recent memory; a carve-out of the filibuster for judicial nominees and members of the executive branch, with the exception of Supreme Court justices. He also led the Senate during congressional ethics reforms, as well as the passage of the Affordable Care Act, and would go on to call for an end to the 60-vote filibuster rule anyway, which he credited with turning the Senate into a “legislative graveyard”.
Mr Reid died at his home in Henderson, Nevada, on Tuesday. His wife, Landra Reid, told the Nevada Independent that her husband was a “deeply loyal friend” and “devout family man”.
“We greatly appreciate the outpouring of support from so many over these past few years,” Ms Reid told the news outlet. “We are especially grateful for the doctors and nurses that cared for him. Please know that meant the world to him.”
He announced in 2020 that he was in remission after battling cancer for years. Mr Reid was Nevada’s longest-serving senator, and arguably the most prominent politician from the state on the national stage in US history.
That notoriety was pointed out by the state’s current governor, Steve Sisolak, who told the Nevada Independent: “To say Harry Reid was a giant doesn’t fully encapsulate all that he accomplished on behalf of the state”, adding: “[T]here will never be another leader quite like Senator Reid.”
The senator was known for his short temper and tendency to cause controversy with his remarks, however, he also remained on top of trends in the Democratic Party and on the left in general in a way that other party leaders could not. He was an early supporter of former President Barack Obama’s successful 2008 bid for the presidency, and also was one of the most prominent and earliest critics of the right-leaning Koch brothers, David and Charles Koch, whose wealth has bankrolled a number of right leaning causes over the years.
Mr Obama shared a letter he sent to the late Mr Reid on Tuesday after the news of his death became public.
When Harry Reid was nearing the end, his wife Landra asked some of us to share letters that she could read to him. In lieu of a statement, here’s what I wrote to my friend: pic.twitter.com/o6Ll6rzpAX
— Barack Obama (@BarackObama) December 29, 2021
He retired from the Senate in 2016 after expressing criticism for lawmakers who remain in office into their later years, and endorsed his eventual successor, now-Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, who eulogised Mr Reid in a statement released through Twitter.
“Harry Reid was one of the most amazing individuals I’ve ever met,” tweeted Mr Schumer. “He never forgot where he came from and used those boxing instincts to fearlessly fight those who were hurting the poor & the middle class.”
“He’s gone but will walk by the sides of many of us in the Senate every day,” added the New York senator.
President Joe Biden, who served with Mr Reid for decades in the Senate and was vice president when Mr Reid was majority leader, paid tribute in a late-night statement.
“During the two decades we served together in the United States Senate, and the eight years we worked together while I served as Vice President, Harry met the marker for what I’ve always believed is the most important thing by which you can measure a person—their action and their word,” he said.
Born in Searchlight, Nevada, Mr Reid was born to a relatively poor family in 1939, his father killed himself. Mr Reid spoke about his father’s suicide during his farewell speech.
“I can still remember seeing my dad on that bed, and I was so sad, because my dad never had a chance,” he said at the time. “He was depressed always.”
A former amateur middleweight boxer, he worked as a Capitol Police officer to put himself through law school.
Before joining the Senate in 1987, he served in a number of other roles, first as a member of the Nevada State Assembly, before serving as lieutenant governor of Nevada. When he first ran for Senate in 1974, he narrowly lost to Sen Paul Laxalt by 624 votes. In turn, he became chairman of the Nevada Gaming Commission, a job that gave him oversight of Las Vegas’s famous casinos. That nearly led to his premature death in 1981, when Ms Reid found a bomb attached to their family car. The culprit was never proven.
Mr Reid was also offered a bribe during his time as gaming commissioner, which he reported to the FBI to set up a sting operation. But when the person tried to make another offer, Mr Reid choked the man and said “you son of a bitch, you tried to bribe me.” His tenure as gaming commissioner and taking on organized crime would serve as an inspiration for a character in Martin Scorsese’s film Casino.
Mr Reid would eventually win election to the Senate in 1986, becoming Majority Leader in 2006. During that time, he presided over Democrats’ passage of the 2009 stimulus bill, the Affordable Care Act in 2010 and the Dodd-Frank financial reform law. In 2013, as Republicans continued to block plenty of Mr Obama’s judicial and cabinet nominations, Mr Reid invoked what was then called “the nuclear option,” removing the 60-vote threshold for all nominations except for Supreme Court nominations. Later, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell would remove the barrier for Supreme Court nominations, setting the stage for the bloodsport Supreme Court nominations seen today.
Uncommonly brusque, Mr Reid frequently made statements that many found off-putting. He called former president George W Bush “a liar” and “a loser.” He also claimed without evidence in 2012 that then-Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney had not paid any income taxes. Mr Obama said in a tribute to him in 2019 that, “Even when I was president, he would hang up on me.”
Nevertheless, he earned the respect of various Republicans. Despite their frequent clashes, Mr McConnell paid tribute to his former sparring partner in a statement late Tuesday evening.
“When Harry retired from the Senate, we both celebrated the fact that our many differences had never really gotten personal. Harry’s and my paths in the Senate were roughly parallel,” he said. “We seemed to reach each institutional milestone within just a few years of each other. I truly appreciated the sincere and cordial relationship we shared behind the scenes when passions cooled.”
Similarly, despite telling Mr Reid to “go f–k yourself” in 2012 after saying he ran a “dictatorship” in the House, former House Speaker John Boehner paid tribute to Mr Reid.
“I am sad tonight but grateful for the friendship I had with Harry,” he said. “We disagreed on many things, sometimes famously. But we were always honest with each other. In the years after we left public service, that honesty became a bond.”
He remained a kingmaker in Nevada Democratic Party politics until his death, and is widely credited with helping one of the state’s current senators, Jacky Rosen, ascend to office after he put his thumb on the scale during her successful 2018 run for office against then-incumbent Republican Sen Dean Heller. He also handpicked Catherine Cortez Masto, who would win in 2016.
Mr Reid continued is also credited with building the Nevada Democratic Party operations, known colloquially as the “Reid Machine,” a combination of the state’s Culinary Union, on which the state’s gaming and hospitality industries rely heavily, and the state party infrastructure. Mr Reid’s infrastructure for Democratic turnout relied heavily on turnout from Latino voters, who comprise a large bulk of the union, and was so successful that even when Donald Trump won the presidency in 2016, the Nevada Democratic Party would win Senate and House seats.
Tributes poured in for the former senator from Democrats late Tuesday evening after news of his passing broke, including from Julián Castro, one of the most prominent young Democrats to come out of the US southwest in recent memory who in 2020 ran for president in the crowded Democratic primary.
“Harry Reid taught us all how to campaign with conviction, govern with guile, and fight like hell for what you believe in,” he said.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who ascended to lead the House in the 2006 midterm elections that propelled Mr Reid to be majority leader, praised his leadership.
“In the Congress, his strategic mind was legendary and unsurpassed – and he was a master of the legislative process during his service in both the House and the Senate,” he said. “Indeed, Harry Reid will be remembered as one of the most impactful Leaders of the Senate in history, helping to steer this institution with reverence, principle and command.”
Mr Reid’s influence could also be felt throughout the Democratic Party beyond just the Senate. Plenty of his former staff now lead progressive organizations or worked on progressive presidential campaigns.
Sen Elizabeth Warren paid tribute to Mr Reid, whose former aide Kristen Orthman now works for Ms Warren.
“Harry Reid was the kind of fighter I love: a fighter who knows how to win. Harry never wavered in his commitment to do what’s right — especially for the people of Nevada,” she said. After Congress passed the bank bailout in 2008, Mr Reid tapped Ms Warren, then a Harvard Law School professor, to oversee the Congressional Oversight Panel.
“I figured out that when Harry calls, say yes,” she said in a statement. “Harry was a good man. He gave me a chance to serve, and he supported me every step of the way. I will miss him.”
Sen Bernie Sanders, whose 2020 campaign manager Faiz Shakir worked for Mr Reid, also paid tribute to his former colleague.
“Harry Reid was an outstanding leader and a friend. I have fond memories of working with him on important issues impacting working families, including the vast expansion of community health centers,” he said.