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Harry Reid, Controversial Senate Majority Leader, Dies At 82

Harry Reid, who brought both legislative results and repeated controversy to his eight-year tenure as U.S. Senate Majority Leader, passed away at the age of 82 from pancreatic cancer.

Benzinga · 12/29/2021 10:40

Harry Reid, who brought both legislative results and repeated controversy to his eight-year tenure as U.S. Senate Majority Leader, passed away at the age of 82 from pancreatic cancer.

A Rise To Prominence: Harry Mason Reid Jr. was born on Dec. 2, 1939, in Searchlight, Nevada. His father worked as a rock miner and his mother was a laundress for local brothels.

Reid graduated from Utah State University in 1961 with a double major in political science and history. He moved to Washington, D.C., to attend George Washington University Law School and supported himself as an officer in the U.S. Capitol Police until he completed his studies in 1964.

Reid returned to Nevada to practice law. He became involved in Democratic Party politics, gaining election as city attorney in Henderson and later as an assemblyman in the state’s legislature. He was elected lieutenant governor in 1970 and served one term before embarking on an unsuccessful U.S. Senate campaign in 1974 and a doomed race for Las Vegas mayor in 1975.

Reid stayed in the public eye as chairman of the Nevada Gaming Commission from 1977 to 1981. He was elected the U.S. House of Representatives from Nevada’s 2nd Congressional District in 1982 and was re-elected two years later. He was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1987 and served in that chamber for the next 30 years.

Reid’s national profile began to ascend in 1995 when he was named Senate Democratic Whip. In 2001, he served a two-year term as chairman of the influential Senate Ethics Committee. He succeeded Tom Daschle as Minority Leader in 2005 and became Majority Leader when the 2006 election tipped the balance of power in favor of the Democrats. In 2015, Republicans regained control of the Senate and Reid was Minority Leader until his retirement in 2017.

A Flair For Controversy: As Senate Majority Leader, Reid was frequently the center of controversial decisions and comments. He orchestrated the 2013 “nuclear option” procedure that ended the 60-vote requirement for terminating a filibuster against all executive branch nominees and judicial nominees other than to the Supreme Court. This decision came back to haunt Reid when Senate Republicans took control of the chamber with the 2014 election and invoked the nuclear option to remove the Supreme Court exception that Reid carved out.

During his Senate years, Reid faced criticism for encouraging Nevada-based projects that enriched his real estate investments and his deep-pocketed donors, although he also arranged for legislation to conserve Nevada’s ecosystem. He back-pedaled racially insensitive remarks aimed at Barack Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign, but did not apologize for questioning how Hispanics could be members of the Republican Party.

In the 2012 campaign, Reid falsely claimed on the Senate floor that Republican candidate Mitt Romney did not pay taxes for 10 years. Due to the legal structure of the Congress, Reid’s statements were not subject to slander or defamation of character litigation, leaving Romney little choice but to protest to the media while sharing his tax returns for the years in question.

Reid gleefully acknowledged his mischief after the election by proclaiming that his lies fueled the candidate’s defeat, adding it was “one of the best things I've ever done.” He had no problems in harshly insulting several Republican leaders, calling President George W. Bush a “liar” and a “loser” while sneering at Donald Trump in the 2016 election as being a “racist” and “sexual predator.”

Reid also had a history of flip-flopping on major issues. He supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq but called for the removal of U.S. troops four years later, and he was initially opposed to same-sex marriages before changing his mind on the subject. Reid changed positions on Roe v. Wade, at first voicing opposition to the Supreme Court’s 1973 ruling while later embracing it.

Reid did not shy away from pushing controversial legislation through the Senate, including the 2008 bailout of the nation’s major banks and Obama’s Affordable Care Act and economic stimulus package.

End Of An Era: On Jan. 1, 2015, Reid suffered broken ribs and broken facial bones after injuring himself on a home exercise machine; he also nearly lost his sight in an eye. While he initially planned to seek re-election in 2016, he later cited his health problems when he reversed his decision.

Reid underwent surgery for pancreatic cancer in May 2018. Nine months later, he announced the cancer was in remission.

President Joe Biden paid tribute to Reid in a statement released by the White House.

“If Harry said he would do something, he did it,” said Biden in the statement. “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.”

Photo: Harry Reid in 2020, courtesy of the Center for American Progress