Former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who rose from a hardscrabble Nevada childhood to become a powerful Democratic force in Congress during the Obama presidency, died Tuesday. He was 82.
Mr. Reid died after a four-year battle with pancreatic cancer, 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,” she said.
As the Senate’s top Democrat, Mr. Reid successfully blocked President George W. Bush from privatizing Social Security, and later helped enact the 2010 health-insurance law known as the Affordable Care Act. He also led a push to change the Senate’s procedures to confirm executive-branch nominees and most judges with a simple majority, a momentous move that permanently altered the chamber’s character.
President Biden, who served with Mr. Reid in the Senate and worked with him as vice president, praised Mr. Reid as “a dear friend and a giant of our history.”
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.), who succeeded Mr. Reid as the party’s leader, called Mr. Reid one of his dearest friends. “He’s gone but will walk by the sides of many of us in the Senate every day,” he said.
Through the way Mr. Reid wielded power on the Senate floor—including by exercising near total command over which measures received votes and which didn’t—he “took control far beyond where even [onetime Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson] had been able to push it, and it changed the institution,” according to “Kill Switch,” a 2021 book written by Mr. Reid’s former deputy chief of staff, Adam Jentleson.
Mr. Reid’s tactics infuriated Republicans, and some Democrats too. Mr. Reid’s Republican counterpart, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.), said in 2013 that if Mr. Reid went nuclear—shorthand for eliminating the Senate’s 60-vote requirement for presidential nominees and allowing most confirmations to proceed with a simple majority—he would “be remembered as the worst leader here ever.”
Mr. Reid pushed ahead with the change, insisting that he needed to respond to Mr. McConnell’s constant obstruction. By 2017, Mr. McConnell responded by driving through the elimination of the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees, resulting in the court’s current 6-3 conservative majority. In his retirement, Mr. Reid concluded that the legislative filibuster should be abolished as well.
“I truly appreciated the sincere and cordial relationship we shared behind the scenes when passions cooled,” Mr. McConnell said Tuesday night, calling him “one of a kind.”
Mr. Reid’s political acumen was disguised by his tendency to speak in a whisper. But his gift for conversation, combined with his habit of observing the interpersonal relationships of members on the Senate floor and in closed-door lunches, meant that he was tapped in to information about every aspect of the Senate. He extended that control by backing the creation of the Senate Majority PAC, the fundraising juggernaut designed to support Senate Democratic candidates, giving him influence over not just what happened on the Senate floor but which Democrats populated the arena.
Mr. Reid’s pugilistic streak—he boxed in his younger days—extended into election politics. He tried to undercut Mitt Romney by claiming repeatedly—and without evidence—that the 2012 GOP presidential nominee had paid no personal income taxes over a decade, a charge that Mr. Romney denied.
“I don’t regret that at all,” Mr. Reid told CNN in 2015. “Romney didn’t win, did he?”
Mr. Reid was born on Dec. 2, 1939, in Searchlight, Nev., to an alcoholic miner and a mother who took in laundry from brothels and card dealers at casinos, the senator wrote in “The Good Fight.” He said he learned to swim at a brothel swimming pool.
After earning a law degree at George Washington University while working as a U.S. Capitol policeman, Mr. Reid launched his political career as the attorney for the small town of Henderson, Nev. His big break came when he was elected lieutenant governor in the same year that his political mentor, Mike O’Callaghan, was elected governor. At age 30, Mr. Reid was the youngest elected lieutenant governor in Nevada’s history.
Mr. Reid later stumbled with a pair of election losses, only to regain his footing when Mr. O’Callaghan appointed him as Nevada’s top gambling regulator in the late 1970s.
The job, which he held until 1981, put Mr. Reid face-to-face with organized crime and helped him build a reputation for toughness. Teaming up with the Federal Bureau of Investigation to set up a sting operation after a man tried to bribe him, Mr. Reid veered off script, trying to choke the would-be briber. “You son of a bitch, you tried to bribe me!” Mr. Reid exclaimed before the FBI could intervene.
His blunt streak, which some called impolitic, was a recurring theme in his political career. In 2006, Mr. Reid had urged then- Sen. Barack Obama to run for president, telling Mr. Obama that “you’re not going to go anyplace here. I know that you don’t like it,” according to “Game Change,” a book by journalists John Heilemann and Mark Halperin about the 2008 presidential election. (Mr. Reid also had predicted that Mr. Obama could become the country’s first Black president because he was “light-skinned and had no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one,” according to the same book. He later apologized.)
“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,” Mr. Obama wrote to Mr. Reid in a letter the former president shared on Twitter on Tuesday night.
Mr. Reid retired from the Senate in early 2017 after an exercise band snapped while he was working out in his home, spinning him around into cabinets and breaking four ribs along with bones around his right eye.
Mr. Reid played an important role in Nevada’s political life. He invested in the state Democratic Party and developed a close relationship with the culinary workers’ union, building a political machine that helped put Democrats in office even in years like 2016, when other swing states voted for Republicans as Donald Trump was swept into office.
Mr. Reid persuaded Mr. Obama to declare the Basin and Range area of southeastern Nevada a national monument, putting an area nearly the size of Rhode Island off limits to development. Mr. Reid became a champion of the rights of Dreamers, young immigrants brought to the country illegally as children, after forming a friendship with a young, undocumented immigrant living in Nevada.
Mr. Reid is survived by his wife, Landra, and his five children, Lana, Rory, Leif, Josh and Key, along with numerous grandchildren.
Write to Siobhan Hughes at email@example.com
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Appeared in the December 29, 2021, print edition as ‘Longtime Leader Helped Reshape Senate.’