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Former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid dies at 82

Nevada Democrat served 30 years in the Senate and four in the House

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid delivers his victory speech in Las Vegas in 2010 after winning a fifth Senate term.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid delivers his victory speech in Las Vegas in 2010 after winning a fifth Senate term. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call Photos)

Former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has died, his family announced Tuesday. He was 82.

“He died peacefully this afternoon, surrounded by our family, following a courageous, four-year battle with pancreatic cancer. Harry was 82 years old. We were married for 62 years,” his wife, Landra Reid, said in a statement. “We are so proud of the legacy he leaves behind both on the national stage and his beloved Nevada.”

Reid, a Democrat, was first elected to the House in 1982, before moving to the Senate four years later. He retired from Senate service in January 2017, at the end of the 114th Congress, after serving as the chamber’s Democratic leader for over a decade. He had announced well in advance that he would not be seeking reelection.

On Capitol Hill, Reid first became majority leader in 2007, when he enjoyed the cooperation of a Democratic House. He picked up a Democratic president in Barack Obama in 2009.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., speaks to reporters in the Ohio Clock Corridor about energy legislation and the indictment of Sen. Ted Stevens on Tuesday, July 29, 2008. (CQ Roll Call file photo)

In a statement, Obama sent a letter he wrote to Reid at Landra’s request in the days before his death. In it, he credits Reid with encouraging his presidential run, as well as much of the success that came with it.

“You were a great leader in the Senate, and early on you were more generous to me than I had any right to expect. I wouldn’t have been president had it not been for your encouragement and support, and I wouldn’t have got most of what I got done without your skill and determination.Most of all, you’ve been a good friend,” Obama wrote.

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 the overhaul of the health care system that came to be known by many as Obamacare.

“He was tough-as-nails strong, but caring and compassionate, and always went out of his way quietly to help people who needed help. He was a boxer who came from humble origins, but he never forgot where he came from and used those boxing instincts to fearlessly fight those who were hurting, the poor and the middle class,” Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer said in a statement Tuesday.

Reid’s long-time Republican counterpart praised him as a “truly one-of-a-kind” public servant.

“The nature of Harry’s and my jobs brought us into frequent and sometimes intense conflict over politics and policy. But I never doubted that Harry was always doing what he earnestly, deeply felt was right for Nevada and our country. He will rightly go down in history as a crucial, pivotal figure in the development and history of his beloved home state,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said in a statement.

He was able to get all 60 members of the Democratic caucus in 2009 together to support the Senate version of the health care overhaul, managing to win the support of centrists like Nebraska’s Ben Nelson without a liberal revolt.

Once Massachusetts voters elected Republican Scott P. Brown in January 2010 to fill out the term of Democratic legend Edward M. Kennedy, who died the previous August, Reid and Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California needed to use the expedited procedures of budget reconciliation to finish the landmark health care law.

“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.  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,” Pelosi said in a statement.

But some of those very successes, and the emphasis on protecting them, contributed to the near total breakdown of the Senate as a functioning legislative body. That is — except for federal executive and judicial nominations.

The old boxer did not resign from the Senate early despite sustaining rib, facial and eye injuries from a bizarre New Year’s 2015 workout accident when an elastic fitness band apparently malfunctioned and threw him back into cabinets at a home Reid had recently purchased in the Las Vegas area.

Reid had shown signs of age, but he remained a brilliant Senate tactician who largely maintained Democratic caucus unity as a bulwark against the Republican-led House’s onslaught of legislation, even relishing the role of boogeyman to conservatives. The GOP took to counting the number of times Reid had actually let them get votes on amendments.

Then-Vice President Joe Biden, right, greets retiring Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., during a portrait unveiling ceremony for Reid in the Russell Senate Office Building, Dec. 8, 2016. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Reid was an enthusiastic supporter of Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton in 2016, and the Nevada State Democratic Party. The political apparatus he built helped deliver a rare swing-state victory for the former secretary of State over Donald Trump, who won that 2016 presidential election.

Nevada went for President Joe Biden in 2020, and Democrats currently hold the state’s governorship and both Senate seats.

“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,” Biden said in a statement. “If Harry said he would do something, he did it. If he gave you his word, you could bank on it. That’s how he got things done for the good of the country for decades.”

Reid was predictably blunt and realistic about his diagnosis of pancreatic cancer in 2018, but it was in remission in 2020.

The international airport in Las Vegas was renamed for the longtime senator just weeks before his death.

Sen. Mitch McConnell‘s spokesman Don Stewart, left, speaks with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., as Reid leaves the Capitol for a meeting at the White House with congressional leaders on Nov. 7, 2014. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Up until the end of his political career, Reid had notoriously close reelection campaigns himself.

The son of an alcoholic miner and a high-school dropout mother, he grew up in Searchlight, a small mining town in Nevada. Reid was an amateur middleweight boxer before scrapping his way to earn a higher education, including time working as a Capitol Police officer while attending George Washington University’s law school.

In 1982, Reid won his first of two House terms. He tried again for the Senate in 1986 and won with 50 percent of the vote over Republican Rep. Jim Santini.

Before being elected to Congress, he had returned to Nevada and served in several posts, including lieutenant governor and the head of Nevada’s gaming commission. In a widely-reported 1981 incident that became an anecdote for Reid’s entire career, his wife Landra found an out-of-place wire in the family station wagon, and it turned out the car had been rigged with some kind of an explosive device, in what had all the markings of an attempted mob hit.

Reid was his party’s second-in-command for six years, serving under Tom Daschle of South Dakota. When Daschle was defeated for reelection in 2004, Reid, in a matter of hours, lined up the votes he needed to move up from whip. When Democrats won control in 2006, there was no question Reid would make the transition from minority to majority leader.

On the policy front in more recent years, Reid spent much time in a rope-a-dope battle with House Republicans on fiscal matters.

In late 2012, Reid accused Speaker John A. Boehner of running a “dictatorship” and refusing to compromise on spending. At a White House meeting the next day, Boehner suggested Reid do something to himself that would be anatomically difficult.

“I am sad tonight but grateful for the friendship I had with Harry,” Boehner wrote in a tweet. “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.”

After retirement, Reid was associated with resort and casino operator MGM, and he frequently worked out of an office just off the floor of the Bellagio.

In a 2019 interview with CQ Roll Call in that casino office, Reid predicted the Senate filibuster would be coming to an end.

“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 said. “That’s not a bad idea.”

Former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., talks with reporters after casting his vote in the early voting for the Nevada Caucus at the East Las Vegas Library on Feb. 15, 2020. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

Funeral arrangements will be announced “in the coming days,” Reid’s widow said in her statement.

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