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Harry Reid, Senate Leader Who Guided Obama’s Agenda, Dies at 82

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What You Need to Know

  • The Nevada politician worked in the arena of backroom dealmaking, with a penchant for hardball tactics and a keen sense of the Senate’s pressure points.

Harry Reid, the Democratic U.S. Senate majority leader who helped implement President Barack Obama’s legislative agenda by rounding up votes to pass Obamacare, the 2009 economic stimulus package and regulation of the financial industry, has died. He was 82.

Reid’s wife, Landra, said in a statement that the cause was pancreatic cancer.

President Joe Biden, who served with Reid in the Senate, said in a statement late Tuesday night that “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.”

Nevada voters first elected Reid to the Senate in 1986. He won four more terms, and became majority leader in 2007, the year before Obama’s election.

After having no luck with a bipartisan approach to approving Obama’s top priority, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, he pushed through the law expanding health insurance coverage known as Obamacare with no Republican votes.

Reid needed 60 votes — the size of the entire Democratic caucus after the 2008 elections — to avoid a filibuster by the Republicans. He wrangled the last votes in late 2009 after persuading Senator Ben Nelson of Nebraska to back the bill in exchange for exempting his state from Medicaid expense increases, and giving up a public insurance option to win the vote of Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut.

Partisan Victory

“This was supposed to be a bill that reformed health care in America,” said the Republican leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. “Instead, we’re left with party-line votes in the middle of the night, a couple of sweetheart deals to get it over the finish line and a truly outraged public.”

The New York Times called it “a stark display of partisanship, and one of the hardest-fought legislative victories in modern times.”

After Republican Scott Brown won a special election to fill the Massachusetts seat left vacant by the death of Senator Ted Kennedy, the effort appeared in jeopardy. But Reid and Speaker Nancy Pelosi engineered a successful salvage operation.

The House of Representatives approved the Senate version of the bill alongside a companion reconciliation bill needing just a simple majority. Obama signed the law in March 2010.

Before the Obamacare struggle, Reid, a former boxer, muscled through the administration’s economic stimulus plan of more than $800 billion in 2009 to deal with the Great Recession, winning over three Republicans to achieve victory.

He also helped enact the Dodd-Frank financial overhaul and a repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” ban on openly gay soldiers serving in the military.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, in a statement on Tuesday night, said Reid 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.”

Nuclear Option

In 2013, after Republicans had blocked dozens of Obama’s judicial nominations for months, Reid engineered a precedent-shattering change in Senate procedures that cut off debate, including filibusters, on most presidential nominees with a simple majority rather than the usual supermajority of 60.

The rule change did not apply to Supreme Court nominations or legislation itself. Democrats controlled 55 of the chamber’s 100 seats at the time.

The change, made with a simple majority and also known as the “nuclear option,” led to the appointments of many appellate court judges. Republicans accused Reid of changing the nature of the Senate.

“This is the most important and most dangerous restructuring of Senate rules since Thomas Jefferson wrote them at the beginning of our country,” Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee said after the vote.

McConnell and the GOP would later deploy the same tactic to eliminate the 60-vote threshold for Supreme Court justices to confirm Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett.

In a statement on Tuesday night, McConnell said “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.”

Reid won strong bipartisan support for a comprehensive immigration overhaul backed by Obama, but the Republican House, led by then-Speaker John Boehner, never brought it up for a vote.

After Republicans took control of the Senate following the 2014 mid-term elections, Reid became the minority leader and used his considerable knowledge of legislative rules to block GOP initiatives.

No Showman

Unlike many of his peers, he didn’t seek out the spotlight. Physically unimposing, he spoke in a low-decibel, almost whispery voice that belied his steely determination. He wasn’t a regular on Sunday morning news programs or cable news.

A 2014 Gallup poll showed a third of Americans either hadn’t heard of him or had no opinion about him. Instead, he worked in the arena of backroom dealmaking, with a penchant for hardball tactics and a keen sense of the Senate’s pressure points as well as the politics in his home state.

Obama, in a statement on Tuesday night, shared a letter he said he had sent Reid recently: “I got the news that the health situation has taken a rough turn, and that it’s hard to talk on the phone. Which, let’s face it, is not that big of a change cause you never liked to talk on the phone anyway!”

The former president went on to say that “you were a great leader in the Senate, and early on you were more generous to me than I had any right to expect.”

Following an exercise-equipment accident at his Nevada home that left him with severe facial and eye injuries, Reid said in 2015 that he would retire on Jan. 3, 2017, when his final term ended.

He underwent surgery to remove a cancerous tumor from his pancreas in May 2018. Two years later he declared himself “cancer-free.”

Harry Mason Reid was born on Dec. 2, 1939, in Searchlight, Nevada, a tiny Mojave Desert town about 60 miles (96 kilometers) south of Las Vegas. His father, Harry Reid Sr., was a miner who committed suicide in 1972 after battling depression. His mother, Inez, raised him and his three brothers in a small cabin with no indoor plumbing or telephone.

With no high school in Searchlight, Reid went to nearby Henderson, where he boarded with local families. There he met Landra Gould, who became his high-school sweetheart, and they married two years after graduating.

Boxing Coach

Reid also met a teacher named Mike O’Callaghan, who was also his boxing coach. Years later, O’Callaghan successfully ran for governor of Nevada on a ticket that included Reid as lieutenant governor.

Reid graduated from Utah State University in 1961 and three years later received a law degree from George Washington University while working nights as a U.S. Capitol police officer.

After law school, Reid headed back to Henderson where he served as city attorney. He won election to the Nevada state assembly in 1968.

In 1970, at age 30, Reid became the youngest lieutenant governor in Nevada history. He held that post until 1974, when he ran for a seat in the U.S. Senate and lost to former Governor Paul Laxalt.

In 1977, he was appointed chairman of the Nevada Gaming Commission, where he fought to clean up the state’s casino industry. In 1981, Reid’s family was targeted with a car bomb, which failed to detonate.

In 1982, he won election to the U.S. House of Representatives. Four years later, he was elected to the Senate. He was the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate from 1999 to 2005, then led Senate Democrats for the next decade. Reid was succeeded by Schumer.

The Reids had five children: Lana, Rory, Leif, Josh and Key.

(Photo: Bloomberg)


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