The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Harry M. Reid, pugnacious Senate majority leader, dies at 82

Harry M. Reid, a Nevada Democrat who became the U.S. Senate majority leader, died from pancreatic cancer on Dec. 28 at the age of 82. (Video: Reuters)

Harry M. Reid, a Nevada Democrat who rose from a hardscrabble mining town to become one of the longest-serving Senate majority leaders in history and a political force during the presidencies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, died Dec. 28 at his home in Henderson, Nev. He was 82.

The death was confirmed by David Krone, a former chief of staff. Mr. Reid was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2018.

A combative but soft-spoken former amateur boxer, Mr. Reid displayed an economy of personal magnetism and embraced the art of the scrappy insult. Columnist Molly Ivins called him ­“charismatically challenged.” Obama, a friend and political ally, euphemistically remarked on his “curmudgeonly charm.”

Mr. Reid was never a commanding presence before a crowd or on television. Sometimes he was barely audible, and he tended to litter his speeches with awkward pauses. But he was the consummate inside player, exercising his political and legislative skills behind the scenes.

He was Senate majority leader from 2007 through 2014. Since the position’s creation in the 1920s, only two senators have held it longer: Democrats Mike Mansfield of Montana, from 1961 through 1976, and Alben W. ­Barkley of Kentucky, from 1937 through 1946.

After overcoming long odds to achieve political leadership, Mr. Reid was not one to apologize for being who he was.

“I didn’t make it in life because of my athletic prowess,” he said in his 2016 retirement speech, at the end of five terms in the Senate. “I didn’t make it because of my good looks. I didn’t make it because I’m a genius. I made it because I worked hard.”

Acknowledged even by Republican adversaries as a wily tactician and master of the Senate’s arcane rules, Mr. Reid notched his greatest legislative achievement in 2009, when he steered a landmark health-care bill through the Senate over solid GOP opposition.

In an effort to secure a filibuster-proof 60 votes, Mr. Reid spent hours behind closed doors, massaging the complex legislation and cutting deals with moderate Democrats. To ease the concerns of Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), for example, Mr. Reid agreed to a generous Medicaid reimbursement provision, specifically for Nebraska — a deal critics labeled the “Cornhusker kickback.”

Washington Post columnist David Broder called Mr. Reid’s dealmaking “crass and parochial,” but it worked. On Dec. 24, 2009, the Senate’s 58 Democrats and two independents voted to approve the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, commonly called Obamacare. After it passed the House of Representatives, Obama signed the bill into law in 2010.

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In this 2016 video, former Senate majority leader Harry Reid talks about his fight against the mob, an attempted car bombing, and his love of palm trees. (Video: Dalton Bennett/The Washington Post)

As Senate minority leader under Bush, Mr. Reid was instrumental in blocking one of the president’s major second-term domestic initiatives, the partial privatization of Social Security. Although his animosity toward Bush was undisguised — he once called him a “loser,” for which he later apologized, and a “liar,” for which he did not — Mr. Reid as majority leader worked with the administration in 2008 to pass the $700 billion Emergency Economic Stabilization Act to shore up banks and other financial institutions threatened by the subprime mortgage crisis.

In the first two years of the Obama presidency, Mr. Reid shepherded a raft of major legislation through the Senate, including the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, to stimulate spending and job growth in the aftermath of the recession, and the Dodd-Frank law, to strengthen regulation of Wall Street and bolster consumer protection.

Mr. Reid’s legislative achievements tended to be overshadowed by the partisan rancor that increasingly gripped Congress during his time as majority leader. But despite the acrimony and gridlock, Post congressional reporter Paul Kane wrote in 2015, “His legacy will be defined just as much by his deft parliamentary maneuvers to push forward sweeping laws that might not have passed under different leadership.”

A trial lawyer, lieutenant governor and two-term member of the U.S. House before winning his Senate seat in 1986, he was certainly a competitor. But the trim, slightly stooped Mr. Reid was low-key in demeanor, and he professed a desire for bipartisan collaboration.

He liked to refer to his days in the ring, where he fought more than a dozen amateur middleweight matches while in college. “I know how to dance. I know how to fight,” he said when he was elected Democratic leader in 2004. “I’d rather dance than fight.”

But there was more Rocky Marciano than Fred Astaire in his political methods. As majority leader, he kept an increasingly tight rein on Senate proceedings, and his tactics drew angry criticism from Republicans that he abused his authority and smothered the rights of the minority.

One complaint was that instead of allowing Senate committees to write legislation, Mr. Reid too often oversaw the drafting process in his office and brought a measure to the floor as a take-it-or-leave-it package, using a parliamentary maneuver to prevent unwanted amendments.

He defended his tightly controlled approach as necessary to counter what he described as Republicans’ “mindless, knee-jerk obstruction” of the Obama agenda. His tactics also enabled Democrats to avoid casting votes on controversial measures that could be troublesome at election time.

“I was never running to be popular with Republicans,” he told reporters at the end of his Senate tenure. “I’ve had a job to do with President Obama. I’ve done the best that I can.”

In a letter Obama wrote to Reid before his death and released Tuesday evening, the former president said: “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.”

Former Senate historian Donald Ritchie said Mr. Reid exercised as much influence as he could under Senate rules, a strategy aided by an increasing concentration of power in the majority leader’s office that began in the 1990s.

Mr. Reid’s most controversial — and arguably most consequential — move came in 2013, after Republicans filibustered a series of Obama nominees. Under his guidance, Democrats pushed through a rules change lowering the threshold for confirmation (except for Supreme Court nominees) from 60 votes to a simple majority. Republicans railed against what Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) called a “complete and total power grab,” but Mr. Reid insisted that GOP intransigence left no other option.

Whatever the merits, Mr. Reid’s use of the “nuclear option” shifted power from the minority to the majority — and four years later allowed the Trump administration to move contested Cabinet and judicial picks through the GOP-controlled Senate. While Mr. Reid exempted Supreme Court nominees from the lowered threshold, the Republican majority, citing his rule change as precedent, extended the simple-majority requirement to the high court, leaving Democrats powerless to block the nominations of Neil M. Gorsuch, Brett M. Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett. “God bless Harry M. Reid,” the late conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer, a Gorsuch supporter, wrote in 2017.

Adding Mr. Reid’s two stints as minority leader (2005 through 2006 and 2015 through 2016) to his eight years as majority leader, he led Senate Democrats for a dozen years. Some members of his party bristled at his strict management style. But he got high marks for keeping his fractious caucus united, and his hold on the leadership of the Democratic caucus was never seriously challenged.

To outsiders, he may not have been an obvious choice for the position. He lacked the smooth manner that plays well on Sunday TV talk shows, and although he moved leftward during his leadership years, he stood to the right of many in his party, especially on social issues. He opposed the 1994 assault weapons ban, favored outlawing so-called partial-birth abortions and voted to authorize the 1991 and 2003 U.S. wars against Iraq.

But in six years as whip under Senate party leader Thomas A. Daschle of South Dakota, he had forged strong ties with fellow Democrats. After Daschle lost his 2004 reelection race, Mr. Reid moved quickly to succeed him as leader, nailing down enough support that his only potential competitor, Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut, dropped out before the balloting.

A bleak upbringing

Harry Mason Reid was born Dec. 2, 1939, in Searchlight, Nev., about 60 miles south of Las Vegas. The town was once a thriving gold-mining center but later depended on prostitution as its main industry.

His father, who had not finished eighth grade, took mining jobs wherever he could find them. His mother did laundry for the brothels. They lived in a house built of railroad ties, with no indoor toilet, and went without medical care no matter how severe the need. His father — described by Mr. Reid as a brooding, reclusive binge drinker — fatally shot himself in 1972.

The town’s only school had one teacher and ended in the eighth grade. Mr. Reid’s class had six students, and “I graduated in the top third,” he quipped. For high school, he hitchhiked 45 miles to the city of Henderson, outside Las Vegas, living with relatives during the week and returning home on weekends.

In high school he met Landra Gould, a student one class behind him. To the chagrin of her parents, who were observant Jews, Landra and the “goy with no religion” fell in love, as Mr. Reid recounted in his 2008 memoir, “The Good Fight: Hard Lessons From Searchlight to Washington,” written with Mark Warren.

Mr. Reid was just shy of his 20th birthday when he and Landra eloped. In Utah, where they lived while he finished college, the couple converted to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but they also observed Jewish holidays in deference to her parents.

The Reids had a daughter, Lana Barringer, and four sons, Rory, Leif, Josh and Key Reid. Rory Reid, a past chairman of the powerful governing body of Clark County, Nev., which includes Las Vegas, was the Democratic nominee for Nevada governor in 2010. In addition to his wife and children, survivors include a brother; 19 grandchildren; and one great-grandchild.

Mr. Reid forged another important relationship in high school, with social studies teacher Mike O’Callaghan, who taught him to box and became his political mentor. O’Callaghan, a Democrat, later served two terms as governor of Nevada.

Mr. Reid received an associate’s degree in 1959 from what is now Southern Utah University, and he graduated from Utah State University two years later with a bachelor’s degree in history and political science. While in law school at George Washington University, he supported his growing family by working full time as a U.S. Capitol Police officer.

After graduating from law school in 1964, Mr. Reid returned to Nevada. In 1968 he was elected to the State Assembly, where he attracted notice with a flurry of legislative proposals. Two years later, the year O’Callaghan won the governorship, Mr. Reid was elected lieutenant governor.

In 1974 — the year of a Democratic electoral wave that followed the Watergate scandal — he ran for an open U.S. Senate seat convinced that he could not lose. He did, by 624 votes, to former governor Paul Laxalt (R). Mr. Reid then made what he later acknowledged was a foolhardy run for mayor of Las Vegas. He lost that race, too, and was now, as he put it, a “35-year-old has-been.”

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In 1977, O’Callaghan appointed him to a four-year term as chairman of the Nevada Gaming Commission, which regulates the state’s lucrative gambling industry. Mr. Reid, who never gambled, knew little about casinos but soon learned about the business, especially its underside.

When a Las Vegas businessman tried to bribe him to support new gambling devices, Mr. Reid participated in an FBI sting that sent the man to prison. He received frequent death threats, and one day his wife discovered the family station wagon rigged with a bomb that had failed to explode.

In 1982, congressional reapportionment gave Nevada a second U.S. House district, and Mr. Reid easily won the new Las Vegas-based seat. Four years later, when Laxalt retired, Mr. Reid moved up to the Senate, where he became an aggressive defender of the state’s gambling industry and other interests. As a member of the Appropriations Committee, he secured for his state millions of federal dollars for roads, airports, military facilities, recreation and environmental improvements. In December, the Las Vegas airport was renamed in his honor.

One of his biggest efforts was fending off a long-standing federal plan to store the nation’s spent nuclear fuel at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain — a plan backed by Bush that did much to stoke Mr. Reid’s ill will toward him. (The Obama administration, sensitive to Mr. Reid’s political needs, blocked the Yucca Mountain project, and it has not been revived in the years since.)

Given Nevada’s swing-state status, Mr. Reid’s reelection was not guaranteed. In 2010, his leadership role and close identification with the Obama administration made him especially vulnerable. His GOP opponent, former state legislator Sharron Angle, led in early polling. But her hard-right views and campaign missteps cost her support even among Republicans, and Mr. Reid ended up winning by a comfortable margin.

No 'bloody nose'

In Washington, the Reids lived in a condo at the tony Ritz-Carlton hotel, and at the end of his Senate career, the couple owned real estate, mining claims, securities and other assets worth between $3.3 million and $7.3 million, according to the senator’s 2015 financial disclosure report.

From time to time during his Senate career, news reports suggested that Mr. Reid’s public role and private interests overlapped. In 2003, for example, the Los Angeles Times disclosed that the senator had pushed legislation benefiting Nevada entities that paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in lobbying fees to his sons’ and son-in-law’s firms. He denied any impropriety, and the episode quickly faded away, his leadership position undamaged. (Mr. Reid said he was helping his home state, not his family, though he subsequently barred relatives from lobbying his office.)

The Democrats’ loss of the Senate in 2014 demoted Mr. Reid to minority leader. The following New Year’s Day, he suffered broken ribs and serious eye and facial injuries in an accident while exercising in his home. Not long afterward, he announced he would not seek reelection in 2016.

After leaving the Senate, Mr. Reid was a fellow at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas law school. He also was co-chair, with former House speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), of a public policy institute at UNLV funded by MGM Resorts International, a major player in Nevada gambling.

In his autobiography, Mr. Reid described his abilities as a boxer in words that could also serve as commentary on his public life.

“I could assess situations well, and I learned to recognize and exploit an opposing fighter’s weaknesses,” he wrote. “I could hit hard, and I could take a punch. But I never had a bloody nose.”