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Former Democratic Senate leader Harry Reid has died at age 82

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Former Senate leader Harry Reid has died at the age of 82. His wife, Landra Reid, said his death came after a four-year battle with pancreatic cancer. Reid was a Nevada Democrat, but he was much more than that. He was the Senate majority and minority leader during the Obama presidency - had a major effect on the course of the country. And NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis remembers what a character he was.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Harry Reid was a lot of things, but he was most often proud of what he was not. His distaste for the Washington social scene was so well-known, he often bragged about how often he turned down party invitations, as he did here in his Senate farewell address in 2016.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HARRY REID: So during my 34 years in Congress, I had approximately 135 or 36 of these. I've attended one of them.

(LAUGHTER)

REID: For me, that was enough.

DAVIS: Reid's rise in politics was never attributed to his social skills. His lifelong habit of ending phone calls by simply hanging up when he was done with a conversation was the stuff of Washington legend. Here's then-Vice President Joe Biden speaking at a Reid tribute before he left the Senate.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VICE PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Harry, I got to admit - years to come, every time I hear a dial tone, I'll think of Harry.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVIS: To understand how this soft-spoken, antisocial senator rose up the political ranks, it's necessary to understand where he came from. Reid was born in a wooden lean-to with no electricity or plumbing in the impoverished town of Searchlight, Nev. - population 250. His father was a miner, and his mother earned money by doing laundry for the town's brothels.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

REID: The big business while I was growing up was prostitution. You know, all up in there, there's as - one time, as many as 13 houses of prostitution. That's what kept the town jumping.

DAVIS: That was Reid speaking to NPR from Searchlight in 2004, shortly after he was elected Democratic minority leader by his colleagues for the first time. Reid liked to say he made it out of that town because he was a fighter, literally. He was an amateur boxer in high school, and he brought that same pugilist attitude to politics, which he once described this way.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

REID: I'm - always would rather dance and fight, but I know how to fight.

DAVIS: And fight he did. Reid led Senate Democrats for more than a decade, from 2005 until his 2016 retirement. It was an era defined by a rise in the polarization of the once clubby atmosphere of the United States Senate. Reid's defining moment as leader came in 2013, when he made the controversial decision to blow up long-standing Senate filibuster rules to make it easier for President Obama to get most of his nominations through a gridlocked Senate. Reid defended the decision this way.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

REID: The rule change will make cloture for all nominations, other than the Supreme Court, a majority threshold vote - yes or no. The Senate is a living thing, and to survive, it must change, as it has over the history of this great country.

DAVIS: Republicans opposed the move and warned there would be consequences. Here's then-Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MITCH MCCONNELL: Say to my friends on the other side of the aisle, you'll regret this, and you may regret it a lot sooner than you think.

DAVIS: McConnell was right. After Republicans won control of the Senate in 2014, he cited the Reid precedent to push through a rules change to eliminate the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees in 2017. It paved the way for Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh to join the court and forever changed how the Senate approves a president's nominees. But Reid had no regrets. In a final editorial for The New York Times, Reid wrote the rules change was the right thing to do. Plus, regret simply wasn't his style.

Susan Davis, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Susan Davis is a congressional correspondent for NPR and a co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast. She has covered Congress, elections, and national politics since 2002 for publications including USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, National Journal and Roll Call. She appears regularly on television and radio outlets to discuss congressional and national politics, and she is a contributor on PBS's Washington Week with Robert Costa. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Philadelphia native.
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