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Harry Reid Biography: The CQ Profile

Senate Minority Leader Reid announced on March 27 that he is bowing out of the Senate at the end of his current term in 2016, ending months of speculation. His 33-year congressional career has spanned five presidents and countless Senate floor debates with rival Republicans.  

Reid made his retirement announcement in a three-minute video posted on YouTube and Twitter. On the day he was first sworn into the House in 1983, Time magazine’s cover story explored the advent of the personal computer, which was “beeping its way into offices, schools and homes.”  

In the flat, dry voice familiar to a generation of CSPAN viewers, Reid alluded to the New Year’s Day accident on an exercise machine which broke some ribs, bruised his face and forced him to undergo eye surgery. The accident kept him away from the Senate floor for a month and led to increased speculation that he would not run again.  

“This accident,” Reid said, “has caused Landra [his wife] and me to have a little down time. I have had time to ponder and to think.”  

Reid’s most lasting accomplishment in his final years as majority leader is bound to be the historic vote on Nov. 21, 2013, to change Senate rules and disallow filibusters on nominations other than those to the Supreme Court.  

Democrats had grown increasingly frustrated by Republicans blocking President Barack Obama’s nominees, especially to the high-profile U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. After Reid invoked the “nuclear option” rules change, only a 51-vote majority is needed to end debate on nominations, rather than 60 votes.  

“The American people believe the Senate is broken, and I believe the American people are right,” Reid said. “It’s time to get the Senate working again, not for the good of the current Democratic majority or some future Republican majority but for the good of the country.”  

Reid has had a mostly cordial relationship with GOP leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, but a “gentlemen’s agreement” they struck early in 2011 didn’t hold. Republicans continued to filibuster procedural motions to slow down bills, and Reid often “filled the amendment tree” — a procedure that prevents the minority from proposing changes to bills on the Senate floor. At the start of the 113th Congress in 2013, they agreed on rule changes so that Republicans would be able to offer a minimum number of amendments on bills while giving up some of their power to force procedural votes.  

But in his final year as majority leader, Reid seemed to try to shield Democratic senators who were up for reelection in 2014 from having to vote often on amendments that might give their opponents campaign fodder. He also accused the conservative Koch brothers, owners of a Kansas conglomerate, of “trying to buy America, to pump untold millions into our democracy, hoping to get a government that would serve their bottom line and make them more money,”  

This apparent strategy did not work, as Democrats lost nine seats and control of the Senate.  

Reid himself has always been a fighter. The son of an alcoholic miner and a high-school dropout mother, he grew up in a small town in the Nevada desert and was an amateur middleweight boxer before college and law school and his entry into politics.  

Reid had been elected Democratic leader in the Senate in 2005 after Tom Daschle was defeated for reelection in South Dakota. Two years later, he became Majority Leader, enjoying the cooperation of a House also led by Democrats.  He picked up a Democratic president in 2009. Success was defined by holding his party together, and there were impressive results: Using procedural tools and his talents for horse-trading, Reid helped engineer an economic stimulus package and overhauls of the health care system and financial sector regulation.  

But last year landscape changed.  

In his first press conference after the election, Reid reflected on the defeat. “What we saw in this incredibly difficult election is that people that should have voted, that didn’t vote, are people who needed a reason to vote. And we have to create an atmosphere where the middle class feels that we’re fighting for them.”  

The 114th: CQ Roll Call’s Guide to the New Congress

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