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.
“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.”
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.”