Sen. Harry Reid bid farewell to the Senate Thursday after 30 years in the chamber and more than a decade as top Democrat, a remarkable run during which he shepherded key Obama administration legislation including the sweeping health care law.
But Reid leaves with his Democrats stuck in the minority despite his best efforts, and Republicans and President-elect Donald Trump making plans to repeal President Barack Obama’s signature law as their first order of business next year.
In an uncharacteristically lengthy and personal farewell speech on the Senate floor, Reid warned of “a new gilded age” ahead and lamented how the Senate has changed. He cautioned colleagues to “temper” use of the filibuster, “otherwise, it will be gone.”
“I hope that everyone would do everything they can to protect the Senate as an institution,” he said. “As part of our Constitution, it should be given the dignity it deserves.”
Later, at a ceremony to unveil his portrait, Reid was lauded by Vice President Joe Biden and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, as well as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Reid’s successor as Senate Minority Leader, New York Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer. The audience was full of political leaders past and present, from Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s first chief of staff, to former Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson, who retired after criticism for supporting the health care law.
Reid recognized both as he spoke of a high point of his Senate career, that first congressional term under Obama, when Democrats briefly commanded control of the House and a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. That allowed them to push through a raft of legislation including the economic stimulus, the health care bill and a financial overhaul.
Reid declared it the most productive legislative session in history. “We worked so hard. We delivered big-time,” he recollected.
One by one, Biden, Clinton and the rest paid tribute to the soft-spoken, stoop-shouldered Reid, a taciturn master of the inside game, whose legislative prowess was responsible for all those victories and more.
“That’s you, Harry — always, always, there,” Biden said.
Clinton, making her first visit to Capitol Hill since losing the presidential race, said of Reid’s new portrait: “The more fitting portrait will be the one that goes in the dictionary next to the word ‘fighter.’”
And an emotional Schumer added: “I am telling you there is no one, no one, no one, better to have in your corner.”
The portrait, painted by a young artist, Gavin Glakas, who once worked on Reid’s staff, shows the senator in a typical posture: seated at his desk at work.
Earlier, the 77-year-old gold miner’s son from tiny Searchlight, Nevada, reminisced about rising from a hardscrabble beginning to the heights of Capitol Hill and his “dream job” serving as Obama’s point man in Congress.
Reid’s mother took in laundry from the town’s brothels; his father shot and killed himself. Yet Reid said there was happiness in his childhood, even if he and his siblings’ games included tossing rocks at the tin siding on the latrine when his mother was inside.
He boasted of graduating in the top third of his elementary school class — of six — and of his proudest moment — buying his mother a new set of teeth.
Reid never mentioned Trump, whom he had railed against endlessly in the run-up to the election. Earlier Thursday, in an interview on NPR, Reid remarked of Trump: “I have to say this — he’s not as bad as I thought he would be.”
Reid brought home major benefits to Nevada, funding countless projects, blocking a nuclear waste dump and helping protect many thousands of acres of wilderness. Thanks to Reid, Nevada was a bright spot in Democrats’ electoral wipe-out last month. Clinton won the state, and Reid ensured a Democratic successor, Catherine Cortez Masto, who will be the first Latina senator.
Reid talked about doing battle with coal companies trying to expand operations in Nevada, and in a line that could sum up many of his encounters, he said: “They tried. I won. They lost.”
“I love the Senate, I care about it so very, very much,” Reid said with his wife, Landra, and many of his five children and 19 grandchildren looking down from the gallery.
Following him on the Senate floor, Reid’s home-state colleague Republican Dean Heller said: “It’s been said that it’s better to be feared than loved, if you cannot be both. And as me and my colleagues here today and those in the gallery probably agree with me, no individual in American politics embodies that sentiment today more than my colleague from Nevada, Harry Mason Reid.”