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Harry Reid was the most consequential Senate leader since Lyndon Johnson. In large part because of his hard work, 31 million Americans now live longer, healthier, less pain-wracked lives because they have health insurance through the Affordable Care Act. In large part because of Harry Reid’s work on the American Recovery Act, the Great Recession of 2007 to 2009 did not become a second Great Depression. In large part because of Harry Reid, millions of Americans have protection from fraudsters under the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act.
As consequential as those laws were, Harry Reid may well be most consequential because he made the Senate more democratic. For 35 years, congressional procedure has been my trade, so I’ve seen how Speaker Newt Gingrich and Leader Mitch McConnell consolidated power in the leadership and finely tuned the art of obstruction. Give them credit: They do not believe that government should help working people, so they were happy to block it from doing so as often as they could.
But Harry Reid did not settle for business as usual. When Leader McConnell violated Senate norms to preemptively block appointments by America’s first African American President, Harry Reid did not just resign himself to the all-too-common belief that that’s just the way the Senate is. He worked the Democratic Caucus, telephone call after telephone call, meeting after meeting, until he could do something about it. And in November 2013, he got rid of the filibuster for nominations.
As a result, nominations are now confirmed by a majority vote. And before too long, I believe, majority vote will be the rule for everything in the Senate. When the Senate ultimately takes that next step to become more democratic, we will have Harry Reid to thank for it.
Harry Reid became an expert on Senate procedure. And he did it the old-fashioned way, by hard work and by showing up. In a time when senators now come to the Senate floor only to deliver their speeches and then vanish, Harry Reid would spend untold hours on the floor, protecting the rights of his fellow Democratic senators.
Washington is a town where many are confident that they are the smartest person in the room. Harry Reid didn’t fall for that trap. He enjoyed being underestimated. He made up for it with hard work.
Harry Reid was hands-on. Like Leaders Lyndon Johnson before him and Chuck Schumer after him, he worked the phones. When staffers would tell him that we were awaiting an e-mail reply from someone, Senator Reid would ask us why we hadn’t just called. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that people would take his calls much more quickly than mine.
Washington is a town where many enjoy taking credit for the work of others. There is a longstanding rule on Capitol Hill that senators deliver good news and staffers deliver the bad news. More than once, I offered to give another senator some bad news, but Senator Reid insisted on doing it himself.
But Harry Reid did not linger on the phone. Once he had made a sale, he did not stay on the line for small talk. He hung up. He did not give his interlocutors a chance to change their minds. There was a saying that on a phone call, no one got to say “good-bye” to Senator Reid. The phone line was already dead.
In a town filled with full-throated orators, Harry Reid was a soft-spoken man. People had to lean in to hear him. In one of our regular meetings, he told me to stop mumbling. Characteristically, he delivered that admonition in a mumble.
Harry Reid loved baseball. It was one of the few things about which he and Mitch McConnell could talk. Harry Reid may have been a man of few words, but McConnell made Reid look positively loquacious.
Harry Reid kept in touch with all his senators. He wanted to hear from everyone. Washington is full of staffers — I have to admit I’m one — who talk too much in meetings. Senator Reid wanted to hear from everyone in the room.
Harry Reid was a man of faith. He knew that I study Torah, and he would regularly ask me about the week’s Bible reading. We continued that conversation with each other by e-mail nearly every week for the years after he retired. A Mormon Democrat who married a Jew, Harry Reid was an ardent protector of religious minorities and religious freedom.
Harry Reid was a sweet man. Sitting at my desk outside his office, I saw his many kindnesses to people great and small. He would warmly greet me in the morning and wish me good night at the end of every day.
Goodbye, Mr. Leader. Good night, dear friend. I hope to talk with you again in the world to come.
Bill Dauster was deputy chief of staff to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.