Statement by the President on the Retirement of Senator Harry Reid

Harry Reid is a fighter. In his five terms as a U.S. Senator, Harry has fought for good jobs, a safer environment for our kids, and affordable health care for all. He’s never backed down from a tough decision, or been afraid to choose what is right over what is easy. Time and time again, Harry stood up to special interests and made sure every one of his constituents had a voice in their nation’s capital.

Above all else, Harry has fought for the people of his beloved state of Nevada. The son of a miner and a maid from the tiny town of Searchlight, he never forgot where he came from, and he never stopped working to give everyone who works hard the same shot at success that he had.

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How a gruff, pro-gun, anti-abortion Mormon westerner with few social skills and little national name ID became one of the longest-serving Democratic leaders in Senate history is something few who don’t know Reid can fathom. He is dogged, smarter than you think — or he looks — and will outplan and outhustle just about anyone — the ultimate grinder…

He also has a mean streak, something all successful political leaders need. Yet in Reid’s case, it’s an attribute that’s been raised to high art. Cross Reid and you will pay a price at some point. Jon Ralston, the dean of Nevada political reporters, refers to Reid as “Prince Harry,” and he means that in the most Machiavellian way possible…

For his senators, Reid always had time. He listened to them, soothed their bruised egos, and cajoled and leaned on them when necessary. He raised money for their races and did other political grunt work, and when the time came, they voted for him as leader. In fact, his biggest backers were the female senators he helped elect to office, which would probably surprise the casual Reid watcher…

But the hardball tactics he and others used to ram Obamacare through Congress helped give rise to the tea party movement inside the GOP.

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“He will be remembered as one of the greatest, if not the greatest Majority Leader of many of our lifetimes,” said Josh Orton, who worked on Reid’s communications team in the middle of the last decade. “He had an amazing bulls–t detector. He could always recognize who was doing something for selfish reasons, and who was doing something purely for the right reasons.”…

Harry Reid does not flaunt his power or strut. Reporters have to strain to decipher his soft spoken news conferences, and he quietly creeps about the Capitol, radiating hidden malice with a thin smile and the mournful stoop-shouldered gait of a lawyer in a Charles Dickens novel.

But he has often been the last line of defense for Democrats. He has been a staunch defender of social programs and, reflecting wishes of the large Hispanic community back home, is an enthusiast for immigration reform…

“He might be soft spoken but unlike some politicians, he likes the idea of mixing things up,” said Manley. “There’s a method to the madness.”

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The fundamental story of Reid, particularly in his eight-year reign as majority leader, is one of a myopic authoritarian who scored short-term political and tactical gains while doing damage to the institution of the Senate and his own party. Oh, and he was kind of a jerk about it all.

Reid can be “uncommonly mean,” as a senator once put it to me. He’s called George W. Bush a “loser” and said he “can’t stand” John McCain. He mocks the weight of staff members and even colleagues, like at a press conference when he teased his deputy, Chuck Schumer, for having a double chin. Reid once excoriated a member of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission as a “first-class rat,” a “miserable liar,” a “shit stirrer,” and a “tool of the nuclear industry.” In 2009 a reporter asked Reid to clarify a statement he had made on the Senate. He told her to “turn up your hearing aid.”…

As majority leader after 2006 and particularly during the Obama administration, Reid advanced the liberal agenda by passing the stimulus and Obamacare, the latter through a convoluted manipulation of Senate rules in what would become a hallmark Reid tactic. Republicans regained control of the House in the 2010 midterms, but it was Reid who gummed up Congress’s productivity in the subsequent years. His strategy of “filling the amendment tree” blocked Republican senators from offering their own amendments to force Democrats into politically embarrassing debates and votes. When frustrated Republicans attempted to force Reid to consider their amendments by voting against his motions to close debate, Reid accused the GOP of “filibustering” the important work of the Senate…

Reid’s slash-and-burn strategy was effective at getting major liberal policy goals passed. While Democrats’ Senate ranks dropped in both the 2010 and 2012 elections because of these policy gains, Reid held on just long enough to stop Republicans from being a fully effective check on Obama. But his iron-fisted control over the process also hurt red-state Democrats’ abilities to distinguish themselves from their party when political winds shifted toward the GOP. Former senators Blanche Lincoln, Russ Feingold, Mark Pryor, Mary Landrieu, Kay Hagan, Mark Udall, and Mark Begich can partially thank Reid for their current titles. The Democratic conference Reid will leave behind is smaller and more liberal than the one he took over in 2005.

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Reid’s image among political insiders is different: He is known as a canny behind-the-scenes mastermind, a political puppeteer whose micromanagement knows no bounds. In Nevada, a small state with a provincial political culture, Reid built the Democratic Party into his personal machine, recruiting and funding candidates years in advance to defeat up-and-coming Republican politicians who might someday oppose him. His political maneuvering has helped him survive despite being personally unpopular. In the Senate, Reid carries a list of his Democratic colleagues in his pocket, jotting in the margins the favors requested and owed. As a result, his caucus has been fanatically loyal to him. “Each and every member knew that the only thing he cared about was protecting the caucus as a whole,” former Reid aide Jim Manley told me…

He seems uninterested in the normal human pleasures, or in anything that doesn’t directly advance him toward his goals, and rarely socializes. In 2007, when Queen Elizabeth II made a state visit to Washington, Reid was one of the few to be invited to an exclusive soiree. He turned it down to spend his usual quiet evening at home with Landra…

He takes care of his enemies as much as his friends: After his 2010 reelection, which the conservative Review-Journal had bitterly opposed, the paper’s editor and publisher were suddenly and mysteriously ousted. Reid bears some of the blame for the increasing partisanship and gridlock in Congress, and his outbursts were sometimes over the top, as when, in 2008, he declared, “I can’t stand John McCain,” or when he falsely claimed in 2012 that Mitt Romney had paid no taxes. The late Washington Post columnist David Broder was no fan of Reid, calling him “a continuing embarrassment thanks to his amateurish performance.”

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Many political commentators speak with awe at the job Mitch McConnell did in 2009 and 2010 uniting the Senate’s 40 (and, later, 41) Republicans in opposition to President Obama’s agenda. And it was an impressive show of party unity. But it was easier than the job Reid had: uniting 60 (and, after Scott Brown’s election, 59) senators in favor of difficult, often unpopular bills with distinct tradeoffs. And yet for all the GOP’s vaunted party discipline, Senate Democrats actually voted more in lockstep than Senate Republicans…

When historians look back at Obama’s presidency, they’ll record a slew of legislative accomplishments. There was the stimulus, and Obamacare, and the TARP extension, and the Dodd-Frank financial reforms. There was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the Serve America Act for community service, and the expansion of the Children’s Health Insurance Program. Obama signed new anti-tobacco regulations into law, reformed student loans, ratified the New START nuclear arms reduction treaty, and ended “don’t ask, don’t tell” in the armed forces.

These laws — love them or hate them — are still reverberating through the economy today. They are Obama’s legacy. But they all passed between 2009 and 2010, and they only passed because Reid was able to do something that sounded impossible: hold 60 Democrats together on painful vote after painful vote. This legacy is his just as much as it is Obama’s.

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Reid had fifty-five Democrats in the Senate—enough for a majority but not enough to beat back Republican filibusters. So, in December, 2013, Reid invoked what became known as the nuclear option. With Reid’s blessing, Senate Democrats changed the rules so that only a majority would be required to move lower-court judgeships to a vote. Freed from the threat of filibusters, Reid pushed through thirteen appeals-court judges in 2013 and 2014, a group of exceptional quality. They included Patricia Millett, Nina Pillard, and Robert Wilkins on the D.C. Circuit. For the first time in decades, that court now has a majority of Democratic appointees. Other confirmations included such luminaries as Pamela Harris (a noted professor and advocate) on the Fourth Circuit, Jill Pryor on the Eleventh, and David Barron (a Harvard law professor and Obama Administration lawyer) on the First. None received more than sixty votes, meaning that they would not have been confirmed had Reid not changed the rules. In future decades, many of these judges will be candidates for promotion if a Democratic President has a Supreme Court vacancy to fill. At the same time, Reid pushed through more than a hundred district-court judges in his last two years as majority leader. Of course, almost all of these judges will serve long after Barack Obama and Harry Reid have left office.

Through the Reagan and two Bush Presidencies, Republicans worked hard to put a conservative stamp on the federal judiciary. Under Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, the subject never received the same attention. But Reid saw the importance of federal judges—which is especially apparent now, as the fate of the Affordable Care Act and the President’s immigration initiatives come before the courts. Congress is famous now mostly for its dysfunction, but as Reid has shown the Senate can be made to work. With focus, passion, and relentless attention to the goal before him, he remade the federal judiciary. This living monument to the Democratic leader will stand long after he retires next year.

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How did Reid become a progressive hero? After the 2004 defeats—importantly, after he had secured a six-year term by the only landslide of his career—Reid created a “war room” for Senate Democrats. He tapped Ari Rabin-Havt, the 25-year old former online director for John Kerry’s presidential campaign, to reach out to bloggers and new media…

“Reid was not a progressive,” says Rabin-Havt. “Ideologically, he has progressive views and values, but he didn’t fit within the movement. What he had was the same desire to fight George W. Bush that the bloggers did. He had an amazing understanding of what online communities were, and that the media environment was shifting. When I described what blogs were, he said, ‘Oh, you start with the Gutenberg Bible,’ and then he moved through all of communications history.”…

Reid’s war room built lines of communication with bloggers and the rest of the online left. Everything “gelled,” says Rabin-Havt, when the re-elected president began a months-long campaign for Social Security privatization. Bloggers decried it, kept whip counts, pressured Democrats against supporting it. Reid’s war room kept them informed, individually and in calls…

“By creating a counterbalance to the right-wing noise machine, we started making it easier for Democrats like Reid to do the right thing,” [Markos Moulitsas] says.

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But he is also one of the great tacticians in modern Senate history, someone who combined a mastery of the rules and a keen recognition of the country’s ideological drift to become one of the most influential political figures of the past six years, second only to President Barack Obama.

Reid’s ability to command loyalty within the Democratic caucus is both exceptional and underappreciated. Obamacare simply would not have gotten passed without him. He maneuvered to get Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania to leave the GOP behind and become a Democrat. He sold his colleagues on a bill without a public option, even though he was furious at Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) for killing a variation of it by backing away from his initial support. He personally crafted the abortion language compromise that brought Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) together. And he deftly guided members through the opposition’s tripwire…

Reid continued to rely on his parliamentary know-how to best his opponents during the Obama years. Aides view his blocking of Republican efforts to outmaneuver him during the government shutdown in October 2013 as a personal triumph — a showcase of his ability to keep his caucus united while utilizing the procedural tools at his disposal. After it was done, he couldn’t help but gloat.

“Ted Cruz is smart,” Reid said of the Texas senator who had encouraged his colleagues to close the government unless Obamacare was repealed. “He is now in the Senate. People are as smart as he is … But he has still not accepted that in his own head. He still thinks he’s smarter than everybody else. He might be able to work a calculus problem better than I can. But he can’t legislate better than I can.”

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In 2010, in a move likely driven by Reid, a group of his allies, including Poersch, broke off to establish the Senate Majority PAC and Patriot Majority, which would pool money for the Senate Democratic conference and spend it on the most competitive races. The groups enabled Democrats to compete with flush Republican groups on spending — and in 2014, Senate Majority PAC’s spending exceeded that of any other super PAC.

“It’s unrivaled,” said Rob Jesmer, who served as executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee during the 2010 and 2012 election cycles. “They really pioneered that approach of having a dedicated super PAC for their conference.”

“Harry Reid always seems to find a way to win,” GOP strategist Greg Ferraro told the Las Vegas Sun at the time. “He never wins big and he never wins pretty, and the rumors of his demise are always greatly exaggerated. He always finds a way.”

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Reid voted to raise the debt ceiling 32 times while serving in Congress for the past 32 years. Ten of those votes came during Reid’s eight year tenure as Senate Majority Leader. In 1983, when he first voted for a debt ceiling increase, the debt limit was $400 billion, or $1.1 trillion in today’s dollars. Today, the debt limit has exploded to 16 times higher to $18.1 trillion

Under Reid’s leadership, the Senate failed to pass budgets for fiscal 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2015 — or half of his tenure as Senate Majority Leader. Of the budgets he did pass, none balanced. The first budget resolution since Republicans took back control of the Senate, passed early Friday, would balance in ten years.

During President George W. Bush’s first term, Reid voted against income tax cuts, changes that encouraged retirement savings, and cuts in the death tax.

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There is no gentle way to characterize Senator Reid’s career: He is and long has been one of the worst things about American government — a self-interested, dishonest, sanctimonious, unscrupulous charlatan who began his career with an act of cheap theater — choking Jack Gordon, who had offered him a bribe, for the benefit of the FBI’s cameras — and capped it by filibustering a bill intended to help people being held as slaves because it did not allow for shunting public money into the coffers of Planned Parenthood for subsidized abortions, a stunt he pulled after boasting of his pro-life voting record.

He has grown wealthy in office and made fortuitous investments in real estate that later benefited from federal projects. He used campaign funds as a family slush fund, channeling money to his granddaughter and taking dubious steps to conceal the fact — omitting her surname from official documents — all while posing as a champion of campaign-finance reform. He invested an extraordinary amount of time and effort — including speeches from the Senate floor — denouncing two private citizens for their philanthropic and political donations. He flat-out lied when it suited him, for example announcing during the 2012 campaign that Mitt Romney hadn’t paid any taxes in ten years, a complete and utter fabrication that is, unfortunately, the sort of thing in which Reid has been all too happy to traffic…

He has been as near to a personification of everything that is wrong with American public life as we ever hope to see.

His retirement announcement leaves only one thing to be lamented: that Nevadans will be denied the opportunity to finally discover sufficient reserves of self-respect to defeat him at the ballot box.

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“I want people to remember me as someone who never forgot where he came from,” Reid said, “and who fought every day of his life to make sure that the kids like Harry Reid — these little boys from Searchlight and these kids in these teeming big cities — that we could look to me and say, ‘You know, if Harry Reid could do it, I could do it.'”

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