Harry Reid, Dems' Dogged Senate Leader, Bids Farewell
For 77 minutes on Thursday morning, Sen. Harry Reid reflected on his life, family, hometown and career in Washington as he spoke for the final time on the Senate floor after 30 years in the chamber.
Then, hours later, as his official Senate portrait was unveiled, Reid – the quiet but hard-nosed Democratic leader of the last decade – was honored with speeches from pre-eminent politicos from both sides of the aisle: Hillary Clinton, Vice President Joe Biden, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Reid’s successor, Sen. Chuck Schumer.
Clinton, in one of her few public appearances since conceding the presidential election last month, joked that it was “not exactly the speech at the Capitol I hoped to be giving after the election.” But she praised Reid – with whom she served in the upper chamber for eight years – as a “great leader, a great senator and a great American.”
Biden, who himself was honored in the Senate Wednesday, joked at the start of his remarks, “My name is Joe Biden and I work for Harry Reid.” He praised the Nevada senator as a man who always kept his word, and for his helping push fellow Democrats to vote for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), the Economic Stimulus Act of 2008, Dodd-Frank financial regulations and the Affordable Care Act.
Reid, who announced in 2015 he would not seek re-election, kicked off his farewell earlier in the day on the Senate floor by talking about his difficult childhood growing up in the downtrodden mining town of Searchlight, Nev., and his struggle coming to terms with his history; he proudly told the story of spending $250 to buy his mom new teeth after she was hit in the face with a softball; he talked about his father’s suicide, and how that helped define his battle to pass Obamacare.
The 77-year-old senator took a victory lap on some of his major accomplishments, including the ACA, which he devotedly shepherded through the Senate for President Obama, as well as the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, diversifying the Nevada judiciary, protecting Yucca Mountain from becoming a nuclear waste repository, and helping pass the Congressional Review Act.
“That was legislation that I did, and it was great when we had Republican presidents,” Reid said. “Not so great when we had Democratic presidents. But it was fair.”
Not one for introspection or looking back, Reid nonetheless tried to leave a departing message, both about his hope for the Senate as an institution, and for how he was able to succeed despite his humble beginnings.
“I didn't make it in life because of my athletic prowess,” Reid said. “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, and I tell everyone whatever you want to try to do, make sure you're going to work as hard as you can at trying to do what you want to do.”
Reid’s tenure in the upper chamber was marked by positives and negatives. He helped bring Democrats to the majority in 2006 just one term after becoming leader and shepherded through some of Obama’s most significant accomplishments in the first two years of the administration, including Obamacare and the stimulus.
But left mostly untouched Thursday were the controversies and criticisms from Republicans furious with Reid’s leadership – freshman Sen. Tom Cotton once called it “cancerous” – including Reid spreading false information about Mitt Romney’s taxes on the Senate floor in 2012 and attacking Donald Trump nearly daily from the same spot. Most Republicans skipped his farewell address. A handful watched or streamed in and out of the chamber as he spoke, while the Democratic side was filled with senators.
Some in the GOP didn’t hide their desire to see Reid leave.
“For me, his time here has been one of a failure, obstruction and gridlock,” Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso told reporters during a press conference earlier this week. “All you need to do is look at what happened when as majority leader. He wouldn't even allow members of his own party to offer amendments on the floor of the United States Senate, which is what drove him from majority leader to minority leader.”
Reid, never one to shy away from an insult, called Barrasso a “loser” in an interview with Politico.
But despite his rocky relationship with most Republicans, Reid’s main sparring partner, McConnell, shared a tribute to him and stayed to listen as Reid delivered his farewell speech. McConnell started, as Reid did, talking about Searchlight, and how Reid’s tough upbringing shaped the senator he became.
“It’s clear that Harry and I have two very different worldviews, two different ways of doing things, and two different sets of legislative priorities,” McConnell said. “But through the years we’ve come to understand some things about one another, and we’ve endeavored to keep our disagreements professional rather than personal.
The speeches honoring Reid had one element in common: McConnell, Biden and Clinton praised Landra, his wife of nearly six decades. Reid, ending his remarks, choked up when talking about the woman he called “the being of my existence, in my personal life and my public life.”
He then apologized for talking too long, thanked his family, friends and staff, and wrapped up a 30-year Senate career with handshakes and congratulations from his colleagues.