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Minority Leader Harry Reid Delivers Farewell Address To Senate

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid is retiring, and today he gave his farewell address to the Senate. Reid's legacy is often a matter of debate. Republicans argue that he was an angry partisan who polarized the Senate. Democrats say he was a steady hand in the face of unprecedented obstruction. NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis reports from Capitol Hill.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: If there's one thing everyone can agree on about Harry Reid, it's that he never really cared for Washington niceties. He reflected less than fondly on all of those fancy dinner invitations in his farewell address.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HARRY REID: So during my 34 years in Congress, I had approximately 135 or 136 of these. I've attended one of them.

(LAUGHTER)

REID: For me, that was enough.

DAVIS: A former boxer, Reid often approached the Senate floor like he was stepping into the ring. He famously used it to attack political opponents, sometimes with false charges, like when he accused 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney of not paying his taxes. It wasn't true, but Reid still defends it. This is what he told CNN.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

REID: Well, they call it whatever they want. Romney didn't win, did he?

DAVIS: Reid launched those same kinds of partisan attacks from the Senate floor this year against Republicans like Donald Trump.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

REID: Trump is a human leech who will bleed the country and sit at his golf resort laughing at the money he has made.

DAVIS: And here's Reid attacking Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

REID: It shows Senator McConnell is a poster boy for Republican spinelessness.

DAVIS: At one point back in May, Reid's tactics were too much for Arkansas Republican Tom Cotton, who, as a junior senator, often presides over the chamber when Reid is speaking.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TOM COTTON: Which means I'm forced to listen to the bitter, vulgar, incoherent ramblings of the minority leader.

DAVIS: Cotton's outburst on what he characterized as Reid's cancerous leadership reflected a simmering anger among Republicans towards Reid in his final years here. Here's Wyoming Republican John Barrasso.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

JOHN BARRASSO: Democrats this week will be bidding farewell to Senator Harry Reid, and I'm sure they will paint a rosy picture of his time here. For me, his time here has been one of failure, obstruction and gridlock.

DAVIS: Barrasso is one of those senators who argues Reid damaged the institution by limiting debate and amendments when Democrats were in the majority, as well as for a controversial 2013 rules change that Reid pushed through. It's often referred to as the nuclear option, and it made it easier to get most presidential nominations through the Senate. It was necessary, Reid argued then, in the face of what he saw as unrelenting Republican efforts to derail the Obama presidency.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

REID: For the last four and a half years, they have done everything they can to deny the fact that Obama was elected and then re-elected.

DAVIS: So when Democrats reflect on Reid's time here, it sounds like they're talking about a completely different man. He played a critical role in advancing President Obama's economic stimulus, health care law and Wall Street reforms. And his decision to change the Senate rules allowed for more judicial vacancies to be filled in a one-year period than in the previous two decades. This is Illinois Democrat Richard Durbin, Reid's top deputy for the past 12 years.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RICHARD DURBIN: When I look back on the battles in the last eight years that were waged on behalf of America and Harry's leadership role with the president, there wasn't another person in this chamber who could really take as much credit. And he'd be the last person in the world to do so.

DAVIS: Today Republicans did not give Reid the same warm bipartisan tribute on the floor that they gave Vice President Joe Biden yesterday, and he's OK with that.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

REID: No, I was never running to be popular with the Republicans.

DAVIS: Here's how Reid framed his legacy.

REID: I've had a job to do with President Obama. I've done the best that I can. And I don't have any regrets whatsoever about my efforts to push forward a Democratic agenda.

DAVIS: Harry Reid never much cared for those kinds of niceties anyway. Susan Davis, NPR News, the Capital. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.