The antagonistic comment, made on the Senate floor Monday, came at a sensitive time for health care reform, with Democratic leaders trying to push a compromise by the holidays, and in the middle of Reid's heated race for re-election in Nevada. The remark did not bode well for either effort.
Senate Republicans blasted Reid for the comparison, calling it "offensive" and "unbelievable" and suggesting he was starting to "crack" under the pressure of the health care reform effort.
In the comment, Reid argued that Republicans are using the same stalling tactics employed in the pre-Civil War era -- and during the women's suffrage and civil rights movements.
"Instead of joining us on the right side of history, all the Republicans can come up with is, 'slow down, stop everything, let's start over.' If you think you've heard these same excuses before, you're right," Reid said Monday. "When this country belatedly recognized the wrongs of slavery, there were those who dug in their heels and said 'slow down, it's too early, things aren't bad enough.'"
He continued: "When women spoke up for the right to speak up, they wanted to vote, some insisted they simply, slow down, there will be a better day to do that, today isn't quite right.
"When this body was on the verge of guaranteeing equal civil rights to everyone regardless of the color of their skin, some senators resorted to the same filibuster threats that we hear today."
"It has nothing to do with the historic roots of slavery. ... Harry needs to go to the well of the Senate, take it back, and apologize for offending the sensibilities of the American people on something so important," he told CBS News on Tuesday.
Reid's potential Republican opponents in the 2010 Nevada Senate race were also quick to condemn the remark, noting that a new poll suggests most Nevadans oppose the health care reform package on Capitol Hill.
"It seems that with the more power and prestige that Senator Reid gains in Washington, the more insulting he gets towards those of us back home," former state GOP Chairwoman Sue Lowden said in a statement. "Now, he compares the majority of Nevadans opposing his government-run health care scheme to proponents of slavery. ... Senator Reid should apologize -- once again -- for his unfortunate comments about our citizens."
Las Vegas businessman Danny Tarkanian also called on Reid to apologize, calling his remark a "disgrace" to the Senate and an "embarrassment" to his state.
Both Tarkanian and Lowden are seen as potentially formidable opponents for Reid. A new poll commissioned by the Las Vegas Review-Journal and conducted by Mason-Dixon showed Nevada voters favoring Lowden over Reid by 51-to-41 percent, and favoring Tarkanian over Reid by 48-to-42 percent. The poll of 625 Nevada voters had a margin of error of 4 percentage points.
The newspaper's polling also found that 53 percent of Nevadans oppose President Obama's health care reform proposals, though a significant majority wants to see some kind of reform.
The Reid criticism came from both sides of the aisle.
Richard Harpootlian, former chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party, said the comparison was a sign of "silly season in Washington."
"We see Harry Reid saying silly things on one side, we see Republicans talking about killing grandma on the other -- wake up, Washington," he said.
But Reid stood by the remarks on Tuesday, saying those attacking him are "only proving my point."
"I think the point is quite clear by this point that at pivotal points in American history, the tactics of distortion, delay have certainly been present. They've been used to stop progress. That's what we're talking about here. That's what's happening here. It's very clear. That's a point I made -- no more, no less," he said.
Spokesman Jim Manley called the backlash "feigned outrage."
"(The) Senate is focused on passing a health care bill," Gibbs said.