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US President Joe Biden leaves the stage after speaking during a memorial service for former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in Las Vegas, US on January 8. Photo: AP

Democrats mourn US Senator Harry Reid – and a bygone era in Washington politics

  • Speakers recalled Reid, who died last month aged 82, as a success story who rose from poverty to become one of the US Senate’s longest-serving majority leaders
  • The Las Vegas memorial service was attended by Joe Biden, Barack Obama, Chuck Schumer, Nancy Pelosi and Kamala Harris

A “who’s who” of the Democratic Party mourned late Senator Harry Reid on Saturday as a giant of a bygone era in Washington politics, when even bitter opponents found a way to get things done.

The memorial service in Las Vegas was attended by US President Joe Biden, former president Barack Obama, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Vice-President Kamala Harris.

Speakers recalled Reid, who died last month at the age of 82, as an American success story who rose from abject poverty in rural Nevada to become one of the longest-serving majority leaders in US Senate history.

US Senator Harry Reid in 2016. Photo: Abaca Press / TNS

But weighing on the ceremony, held in a theatre around the late senator’s flag-draped coffin, was a sense that Reid represented an era in politics that starkly contrasts with the present, with Democrats and Republicans increasingly unable to cooperate.

“It will be quite some time before we see another” like him, Schumer said.

In the main eulogy, Obama emphasised Reid’s physical and mental toughness, the “steel” that dated to his days as a boxer who, while typically not the biggest or strongest athlete, “never gave up.”

Harry Reid, US Senate leader under Bush, Obama, dies at 82

But Obama said the biggest qualities in Reid were those “in short supply today … qualities that are exactly what democracy requires.”

“First and foremost, Harry was a pragmatist. At a time when so many Americans across the political spectrum apply strict purity tests … Harry had a different view,” Obama said.

“Harry may have been a proud Democratic partisan. He didn’t shy away from bare-knuckle politics,” he said. But “he met people where they are.”

“He got things done,” Obama said.

Former US president Barack Obama during a memorial service for former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in Las Vegas, US on January 8. Photo: AP

The last speaker of the day was Biden, who also mixed admiration with nostalgia for Reid’s values at a moment when, he said, “America is under attack” from radical right-wing forces.

“If Harry said he was going to do something, he did it. He didn’t do with the modern day rationale” of finding excuses, Biden said, his voice rising.

“He led … not just by speaking but by listening, by hearing all points of view, finding common ground,” Biden said.

Reid, he continued, was an ordinary American who provided “proof that there’s nothing ordinary about Americans.”

A military honour guard carries the coffin of Harry Reid in Las Vegas on January 8. Photo: AP

Despite his hardscrabble upbringing, Reid was elected to the Senate in 1986 and became the chamber’s Democratic leader in the 2004 elections.

He served as the majority leader from 2007 to 2015.

Reid often referred to his working-class origins – his father was a miner, his mother a laundress, and neither parent graduated from high school.

He hitchhiked 40 miles (65km) as a teenager to attend the nearest high school, and put himself through George Washington University Law School by working nights as a member of the US Capitol Police.

Quixotic, he once filibustered the Republicans by himself for nine hours, reading from the history book he wrote about his hometown of Searchlight.

Reid was more conservative than most other Democrats in the Senate.

A practising Mormon, he was staunchly against abortion rights – a stance that sometimes found him working at cross purposes with others in his Democratic caucus.