WASHINGTON – President Biden and former President Barack Obama honored Harry M. Reid on Saturday as a loyal son of Nevada who became a clear but pivotal leader in the Senate, where he led landmark Democratic legislation while tolerating little vanity or praise.
“Harry cared so much about his fellow Americans and so little about how people felt about him,” Biden said at a memorial service for Reid, who died late last month at age 82, at the Smith Center for the Performing. Arts in Las Vegas.
“He was all Searchlight and no center of attention,” the president added, referring to the mining outpost in Nevada where Mr. Reid grew up.
Along with the current and former president, the memorial service also featured testimonials from other prominent Democrats, including President Nancy Pelosi and Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the majority leader, a sign of Reid’s influence on his party. Vice President Kamala Harris and Doug Emhoff, the second gentleman, as well as Jill Biden, the first lady, were also seated in the audience.
Each speaker, including Mr. Reid’s daughter and three sons, spoke of their passion for the Senate and love for their home state. His son Leif Reid noted that his father was such a fan of the Las Vegas-based band The Killers that he requested that their lead singer, Brandon Flowers, sing at his funeral.
Before performing the Nevada state song, “Home Means Nevada,” Mr. Flowers told the audience the story of his visit to the Capitol and being directed by Mr. Reid to perform the song for Mr. Schumer.
Other speakers told stories of the tenacity of Reid, a former boxer, as he guided monumental Democratic victories through Congress, including a comprehensive economic stimulus plan in response to the Great Recession, a new set of rules to control Wall Street. and to the United States. the most significant expansion of health care coverage since the Great Society of the 1960s.
“Let there be no doubt: Harry Reid will be considered one of the most important Senate Majority Leaders in history,” Biden said.
Reid became the face of Senate Democrats after being elected by his peers as minority leader in 2005, then became majority leader in 2007 when Democrats took control of the chamber. He would accept all concerned, Republican or Democratic, and was known for a direct approach that occasionally got him into trouble.
Ms. Pelosi remembered Mr. Reid as a man of few words.
“And I wanted everyone else to be people of few words,” he said.
Ms. Pelosi joined other speakers in describing Mr. Reid’s penchant for hanging up the phone on his colleagues. He couldn’t tolerate prolonging a conversation with a goodbye. She described her modesty: She once stopped her attempt to celebrate her accomplishments by hosting a retirement dinner for her.
“I don’t want to do it,” Pelosi remembers Reid telling her. “Save money. Feed the poor.”
Pelosi said she never heard Reid say “a nasty word about his Senate colleagues,” prompting a fact check by Obama.
“I don’t know about that, Nancy,” Obama said later as the audience burst into laughter. “But he would work with them.”
After a difficult education at Searchlight and a start in state politics, Mr. Reid was elected to the House in 1982 and the Senate in 1986. He served as the second Senate Democrat when Senator Tom Daschle of South Dakota was the party leader. And when Daschle lost his bid for reelection in 2004, Reid quickly outpaced potential rivals to take the top spot.
As a Democratic leader, Reid took on President George W. Bush, whom he once called a “loser,” over the war in Iraq and various domestic issues. Democrats brought voter discontent with Bush to control of the Senate in the 2006 election.
In late 2008, when Bush’s second term ended, Reid was instrumental in working with the White House to prevent a national economic collapse by running the $ 700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program through Congress and stabilizing the economy.
Mr. Reid took decidedly conservative positions early in his career, in particular opposing abortion and looser immigration laws. But his positions changed as the demographics of his state changed, and he eventually became an advocate for undocumented immigrants and a supporter of abortion access. Obama said that after Reid introduced legislation to repeal citizenship by birth, Reid’s wife, Landra, convinced him of immigration by reminding him that his father had been a Russian immigrant.
Obama added: “Later, Harry would say, ‘I realized I was very wrong. I’m so glad he righted the boat. ‘
Mr. Reid encouraged Obama to run for president before the 2008 election even though Obama was a minor member of the Senate at the time. And after Obama won the White House, Reid was one of his most trusted and important allies, using every legislative weapon at his disposal to get the economic stimulus bill passed and, more critical, the Affordable Care Act, which was memorably passed by the Senate in 2009 during a snowstorm on Christmas Eve.
“The deals Harry made to enforce that law weren’t always pretty,” Obama said. “Whenever I objected to a change he wanted to make, be it for political reasons or concerns about optics, Harry would say to me with some exasperation in his voice: ‘Mr. President, you know a lot more about health care policy than I do, okay? I know the Senate. ‘
Biden, a former senator now fighting to pass his own national policy bill, was encouraged by describing Reid’s congressional negotiating tactics and victories. “When Harry said he was going to do something, he did it,” he said. “You could count on that. This is how he did so much for the country for so many decades. “
Democrats experienced significant losses in 2010 but held out in the Senate, while Reid himself survived a strong challenge from an opponent aligned with the far right. Reid, who sustained major injuries during a home exercise accident in 2015, chose not to run for reelection in 2016 and returned to Nevada, where he remained a major political power broker.
Obama closed his comments with the word that Reid rejected during his phone calls, the farewell that he did not consider necessary.
“But it is for us,” Obama said. “Bye, Harry.”