Sen. Harry Reid announced Friday morning he will retire at the end of this Congress, ending a tremendously influential career that has reshaped the Senate he served for five terms.
Mr. Reid faced a tricky re-election in Nevada, where he barely survived five years ago, and said he feared another battle would suck up so much money and attention from Democratic candidates in other states that it could harm his party’s chances of retaking control of the Senate.
He was seen as one of two incumbent Democrats most in danger of losing re-election next year, in a cycle where Senate Republicans face far more trouble, and his decision will help his party campaign committees dole out money more easily without having to worry about defending their chief.
“We have to make sure that the Democrats take control of the Senate again. And I feel it is inappropriate for me to soak up all those resources on me when I could be devoting those resources to the caucus, and that’s what I intend to do,” he said in a statement that he posted online.
Mr. Reid is currently minority leader, after having served eight years as majority leader, from 2007 through early this year. In his previous two years, he oversaw tremendous changes in the Senate, putting the venerable tool of the filibuster on a path to extinction and limiting fellow senators’ ability to offer and vote on amendments.
Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican who has served as Mr. Reid’s GOP foil for all of those years, attributed the GOP’s surge to retake control of the Senate in last year’s elections as partly a rejection of Mr. Reid.
And Mr. Reid’s announcement came just hours after senators finished a massive vote-a-rama considering dozens of amendments to the budget — something Mr. Reid achieved only once in the last five years.
The announcement also comes just days after an inspector general said he used his influence to lobby a top Homeland Security Department official for special treatment for visas for investors in a casino company back in his home state. The inspector general didn’t blame Mr. Reid, but found the homeland security official, Deputy Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, broke ethics rules to give Mr. Reid and several other high-profile Democrats beneficial consideration.
Mr. Reid’s dominance of fellow Senate Democrats was so complete that despite overseeing a net loss of nine seats in November, he was easily re-elected to be their leader.
And in the early-going this year he had appeared as dominant as ever, controlling the floor procedures and wielding to great effect the filibuster tool he had decried just months ago when he was the majority leader.
His victories included protecting the president’s deportation amnesty policy from Republicans who tried to halt it through the spending process and, most recently, blocking an anti-human trafficking bill because it contained language prohibiting federal funds from being spent on abortion.
President Obama, in a statement Friday morning, called Mr. Reid “a fighter.”
“He’s never backed down from a tough decision, or been afraid to choose what is right over what is easy,” said Mr. Obama, who in his short time as a U.S. senator served under Mr. Reid.
In his online posting, titled “From Senator Reid: Thank You,” the senator recounted a devastating exercise accident he suffered at the beginning of this year — he still wears darkened glasses to protect his damaged eye — and he said the down time during the recovery gave him and his wife Landra a chance to think and decide not to run.
Even as he was apparently deciding against another bid, Mr. Reid had insisted publicly that he would seek re-election, telling Politico, a Washington insider publication that asked him if he was 100 percent committed to running, that “the answer is yes.”
Mr. Reid has gone through a political transformation along with his home state of Nevada. He used to be considered a pro-life Democrat, but as his party’s leader has led filibusters on behalf of pro-choice groups, and his stance on gay marriage has evolved as well.
He has almost single-handedly blocked construction of a nuclear waste storage facility at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, even going to battle against fellow Democrats to defend his state. And he has been tremendously influential in placing former staffers and confidants in positions in land-use and energy agencies throughout the federal government.
Mr. Reid also once conducted an old-style “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” type of filibuster, speaking for more than eight hours in 2003 to protest the GOP’s efforts to speed through judicial nominations.
A decade later, Mr. Reid as majority leader led his own push to speed up judicial nominations, triggering the so-called “nuclear option” to use a shortcut to change the Senate filibuster rules.
Mr. Reid’s use of the single-person, hold-the-floor filibuster in 2003 helped him build a case to become Democrats’ Senate leader a year later, when Sen. Tom Daschle, who had held the slot, lost his re-election. Mr. Daschle had represented South Dakota, a conservative state, which often left him in conflict with the liberal trend of the Democratic Party in Washington.
Mr. Reid faced a similar challenge in 2010, when he was wildly unpopular in his home state of Nevada. But Republicans nominated a flawed candidate, and Mr. Reid, who several decades earlier had proposed a fierce crackdown on illegal immigration, led the push for legalization of illegal immigrants, in a bid to appeal to his state’s growing Hispanic population.
The moves worked, and he won re-election 50-44.
Republicans said Mr. Reid wasn’t going to be able to reproduce that result next year.
“On the verge of losing his own election and after losing the majority, Senator Harry Reid has decided to hang up his rusty spurs,” said Ward Baker, executive director of Senate Republicans’ campaign committee. “Not only does Reid instantly become irrelevant and a lame duck, his retirement signals that there is no hope for the Democrats to regain control of the Senate. With the exception of Reid, every elected statewide official in Nevada is Republican, and this race is the top pickup opportunity for the GOP.”
Sen. Jon Tester, the head of Senate Democrats’ campaign committee, said his party will have “a talented pool of Nevada Democrats” to pick from in seeking a replacement for Mr. Reid.