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Harry Reid (1939–2021), former U.S. Senate Majority Leader

by Linnea Crowther

Harry Reid was a U.S. Senator from Nevada from 1987 to 2017, including an eight-year tenure as the Senate Majority Leader from 2007 to 2015.

Congressional achievements

A Democrat, Reid was the longest-serving Senator from Nevada and the third longest-serving Majority Leader in the history of the U.S. Senate. His two most noteworthy acts as Senate Majority Leader were both politically controversial. In 2010, Reid shepherded the Affordable Care Act through Congress to get it passed. And in 2013, he did away with the 60-vote rule on federal judicial appointments, allowing nominees to be approved by a simple majority with no option for a filibuster. Reid’s legacy as senator also includes a strong reputation as a conservationist; he secured more than five million acres in Nevada as protected land. For his work toward this goal, he received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the League of Conservation Voters in 2015.

Early life

Born into poverty in rural Searchlight, Nevada, Reid clawed his way up to become one of the most powerful men in America. He was only 28 when he began serving in the Nevada Assembly in 1968. Two years later, he was elected Lieutenant Governor of Nevada. After losing a few early political campaigns — a bid for U.S. Senate in 1974 and a run for Mayor of Las Vegas the following year — he began his comeback by serving as chairman of the Nevada Gaming Commission. Reid was elected to represent Nevada’s 1st District in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1982. After just two terms there, he made another attempt at the U.S. Senate and emerged victorious to serve the first of his five terms.


A fighter by nature

Reid gained a reputation as a senator who was willing to fight tooth and nail for the issues that mattered to him and his constituents. This fighting spirit started young, with an early career as a boxer. Reid fought in the ring as an amateur for two years and went on to serve as a judge for the Nevada Athletic Commission. Later, as a senator, Reid’s equally hard-hitting bluntness sometimes ruffled feathers, as when he declared that he couldn’t understand why any person of Hispanic heritage could be a Republican. And in 2012, Reid was criticized for apparently making up an accusation that presidential candidate Mitt Romney hadn’t paid taxes for 10 years. Reid defended this move to the Washington Post as “one of the best things I’ve ever done.” He elaborated: “Romney didn’t win, did he?”

Elimination of the filibuster

This so-called “nuclear option” for overcoming strong partisan opposition to federal judicial appointments allowed a number of President Barack Obama’s judicial nominees to pass despite Republican objections. It also established precedent for the Republican-controlled Senate in 2017 to similarly do away with the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees, allowing President Donald Trump’s conservative nominees to pass with relative ease. Reid took criticism for his move, but he revealed in a 2019 interview with the New York Times Magazine that he never regretted his decision. “They can say what they want,” he said. “We had over 100 judges that we couldn’t get approved, so I had no choice. Either Obama’s presidency would be a joke or Obama’s presidency would be one of fruition.”

Reid on his Senate career

“I’m sure there are people more capable than I, better looking than me, better educated than me, smarter than me. But I’ve got the job. And I try to do the best I can with the job.… I look around and I say, ‘Well, I’m the one that has to do it.’ So I have done the best I can.” —from a 2016 interview with Politico

Tributes to Harry Reid

Full obituary: The New York Times

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