Harry Reid still has a few punches left

Former Senate majority leader keeps working more than a year after pancreatic cancer diagnosis

Former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid speaks with CQ Roll Call about Nevada politics, the presidential horse race and how much he hates the Yankees in his office at the Bellagio in Las Vegas on July 2. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid speaks with CQ Roll Call about Nevada politics, the presidential horse race and how much he hates the Yankees in his office at the Bellagio in Las Vegas on July 2. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted July 11, 2019 at 5:30am

LAS VEGAS — Former Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid retired from Congress back at the end of 2016, but the old boxer still has a few punches left for the institution he served in for 30 years, not to mention the New York Yankees. 

The 79-year-old Nevada Democrat met with CQ Roll Call in his office off the casino floor at the Bellagio on the Las Vegas Strip last week to talk his health, politics and a little baseball.

“I got sick. Had a little cancer in my pancreas. Had the surgery, that worked out fine — I mean, as well as it could,” Reid said. “But what hurt me was the chemo. It messed up my back. I damaged five of my vertebrae.”

Pancreatic cancer is known for being particularly difficult, but since his diagnosis became public in May 2018, Reid has undergone aggressive treatment.

[Podcast: Harry Reid in winter: still grappling, and dabbling, in politics]

He’s no longer traveling much beyond his offices in Las Vegas and his home in suburban Henderson, he said, but he’s still in touch with some of his former Senate colleagues, including current Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York, Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin of Illinois and Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby of Alabama.

“I’d love to go to Washington and visit some of my friends, but with [the] wheelchair … it’s just not very easy,” he said.

“I traveled so much during my congressional days, traveled the world, and back and forth to Nevada hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of times, so frankly, I don’t miss it that much,” Reid said. “I love my home and family and my friends here. For 34 years — or actually 37 years, counting my school — I was away from my friends here in Las Vegas.”

Reid was in his office at the casino during the week of July Fourth in part because he was working on putting together an event on the role of Muslims in America for the MGM Resorts Public Policy Institute at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, where he serves as co-chair alongside former Speaker John A. Boehner.

Reid continues to be involved in state Democratic politics, including the 2020 presidential caucus process. Calling himself a “political junkie,” Reid said he watched the entirety of the first two nights of Democratic presidential debates.

“I would hope that come three-and-a-half weeks or so from now, that maybe there won’t be as many participants. We could have a much better debate if there weren’t 10 people each night,” Reid said. “Anything to narrow the field a little bit. I don’t know if that’s going to happen, but it should.”

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While the Democratic National Committee has not announced the specifics of the 2020 debate schedule beyond Houston in September, it might not be too early to make plans to visit Las Vegas in January.

“I certainly hope by the time the debates come to Nevada in January that there’s been a real change in how people are allowed to participate in the debates,” Reid said.

The former majority and minority leader has suggested he will not make any endorsements before Nevadans vote in their February presidential caucuses, but he did offer some initial observations.

Touching on the debate performances of former Vice President Joe Biden and former HUD Secretary Julián Castro, he sounded even more bullish on Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Kamala Harris of California.

“I believe that everyone would have to agree on the first night that Elizabeth Warren was really good. That’s basically what all my friends say, and that’s what I see on television and I read in the stories that you write,” Reid said.

“The second night, I think Biden did just fine. I think that Kamala Harris did very well, and I think [South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete] Buttigieg did OK,” Reid said. “It appears to me also that Castro made a case for the next Democratic president to be a Cabinet member.”

Both Warren and Harris have been among the candidates building significant infrastructure and spending time in Nevada.

“They’re not here to talk about how well we’re doing in Nevada. They’re not out here to talk about our having the first legislature in history [with] a majority of women in both the Senate and the House,” Reid said.

But he couldn’t help slipping in some bragging about his state. “Around the country, they’re talking about making guns easier to get hold of. Here in Nevada, we’ve made background checks on guns. Here in Nevada, we’re not trying to restrict abortion; we’re expanding abortion.”

The political shifts in the Silver State were among the topics most on Reid’s mind, but he also made it clear that he’s keeping up on his longtime interest in baseball.

Reid said that Nevada native Bryce Harper, the former Nationals outfielder playing the first of a 13-year $330 million contract with the Philadelphia Phillies, didn’t deserve to make Tuesday night’s All-Star Game. (Indeed, Harper did not make the roster, although some Major League Baseball signage mistakenly stated otherwise.)

“He will make it next year, I’m sure,” Reid said. “He’s a very fine athlete, a very good person.”

The Phillies were not on the top of the Reid watch list, however.

“I still watch baseball. The teams I like to watch are the Nationals — and they’re pathetic because of their pitching. I watch the [Boston Red Sox], and they’re pathetic because of their pitching, and I watch the Yankees just hoping they’ll lose,” Reid said. “I hate the Yankees. I don’t have a good reason, but I just don’t like them.”

How do his feelings about the Yankees compare to his view of his longtime Republican counterpart, current Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky?

“I don’t dislike Mitch McConnell. I served with him a long time. I understand Mitch McConnell. He’s the person he is,” Reid said. “He’s not a jovial back-slapper. You can make deals with him, but you have to make deals from a position of strength, not weakness.”

Reid repeated his past expressions of disappointment in McConnell’s handling of the Senate and what he views as the diminished collegiality in the chamber.

As majority leader, Reid made the first move to use the “nuclear option” to reduce the vote threshold for breaking filibusters of nominees, and Republicans, led by McConnell, have expanded on that practice under President Donald Trump.

“It’s going to become just like the House. It’s just a question of time, and a real quick time, because the Senate is going to get rid of the filibuster totally and just have it that majority rules,” Reid predicted. “That’s not a bad idea.”

“Now, is that going to ruin the Senate? No. Compared to what it is now, it’ll be great,” Reid said.