WASHINGTON — Presidents and former Senate colleagues are lauding longtime Majority Leader Harry Reid for a political legacy that included an expansion of health insurance coverage for millions of Americans and helping secure an economic aid package and banking overhaul following the 2008 financial crisis.
They are also recalling a politician whose blunt and combative words often antagonized his political rivals, and sometimes his allies. The Nevada Democrat’s abrupt style was typified by his habit of unceremoniously hanging up the phone without saying goodbye.
Reid, 82, died Tuesday at home in Henderson, Nevada, of complications from pancreatic cancer, according to Landra Reid, his wife of 62 years.
President Joe Biden said in a proclamation that the U.S. flag will be flown at half-staff at the White House and other federal buildings on the day of Reid’s internment. Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak issued a similar order for his state. The flag at the U.S. Capitol has already been lowered. Reid’s family has not yet announced memorial service plans.
Biden called Reid one of the great Senate majority leaders in the country’s history.
“He was a man of action, and a man of his word — guided by faith, loyalty, and unshakeable resolve,” Biden said in the proclamation.
Over a 34-year career in Washington, Reid thrived on behind-the-scenes wrangling. He served as majority leader during the presidency of a Republican, George W. Bush, and a Democrat, Barack Obama, a chaotic period that included a crippling recession and the Republican takeover of the House after the 2010 elections.
Reid retired in 2016 after an accident left him blind in one eye. He announced in May 2018 that he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and was being treated.
In many respects, his legacy is tied to Obama’s. In a letter to Reid before Reid’s death, Obama said he wouldn’t have been president without Reid’s support.
“As different as we are, I think we both saw something of ourselves in each other — a couple of outsiders who had defied the odds and knew how to take a punch and cared about the little guy,” Obama said.
Republicans cited Reid’s toughness and tenacity, while also noting they disagreed with him on many issues.
“The nature of Harry’s and my jobs brought us into frequent and sometimes intense conflict over politics and policy,” said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. “But I never doubted that Harry was always doing what he earnestly, deeply felt was right for Nevada and our country.”
Former House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said he and Reid “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.”
Reid was born in Searchlight, Nevada. His father was an alcoholic who died by suicide at 58. His mother was a laundress in a bordello, Reid grew up in a small cabin without indoor plumbing. He hitchhiked to Basic High School in Henderson about 40 miles (64 kilometers) from home, and that’s where he met the wife. At Utah State University, the couple became members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The future senator put himself through George Washington University law school in the District of Columbia by working nights as a U.S. Capitol police officer.
At 28, Reid was elected to the Nevada Assembly. At 30, he became the youngest lieutenant governor in Nevada history.
Elected to the U.S. House in 1982, Reid served in Congress longer than anyone in Nevada history.
After his election as Senate majority leader in 2007, he was credited with putting Nevada on the political map by pushing to move the state’s caucuses to February, at the start of presidential nominating season.
Reid steered hundreds of millions of dollars to Nevada and was credited with almost single-handedly blocking construction of a nuclear waste storage facility at Yucca Mountain outside Las Vegas.
Reid’s moderation meant he was never politically secure in his home state or entirely trusted in the increasingly polarized Senate. Democrats grumbled about his votes for a ban on so-called partial-birth abortion and the Iraq War resolution in 2002, something Reid later said was his biggest regret in Congress.
He also voted against most gun control bills. In 2013, after the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Connecticut, he dropped a proposed ban on assault weapons from the Democrats’ gun control legislation. The package, he said, would not pass with the ban attached.
Reid’s Senate particularly irritated members of the House, both Republicans and Democrats. When then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., muscled Obama’s health care overhaul through the House in 2009, a different version passed the Senate and the reconciliation process floundered long enough for Republicans to turn it into an election-year weapon. They used it to demonize Pelosi and cast the legislation as a big-government power grab. Obama signed the measure into law in March 2010.
But voters, angered by the recession and inspired by the small-government tea party, soon swept Democrats from their House majority.
Reid also took action in 2013 to change the Senate’s filibuster rules and lower the threshold for advancement to 51 votes for most executive and judicial nominees, but not Supreme Court picks.
McConnell went further when Republicans were in the majority, lowering it to 51 votes for Supreme Court nominees too, and enabling Republicans to install three of President Donald Trump’s high court choices over Democratic objections.
In his final months, Reid spoke in favor of eliminating the filibuster altogether, calling the Senate a “legislative graveyard” and no longer a deliberative body.
“The filibuster has become an anti-democratic weapon wielded by the minority to silence the will of the people,” he wrote in the Las Vegas Sun.