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December 20, 2014

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Harry Reid and the fine art of self-bluffing

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J. Scott Applewhite / AP

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., gestures as he speaks with reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, June 4, 2013, after a Democratic strategy session.

Negotiation is the art of compromise. And sometimes, it is the art of appearing totally uncompromising.

In the past few months, Sen. Harry Reid has perfected the art of the bluff.

Consider last week’s filibuster debacle. Over a period of months, Reid left Republicans wondering whether he would call for his Democrats to exercise the “nuclear option” — use a simple majority to pass a rule change gutting the 60-vote procedural filibuster. He inched them closer toward blind panic every day.

When Reid brought his threats to fever pitch on a much more modest set of changes — he wanted to alter the filibuster only for executive nominations — Republicans were in such a state that they agreed to swallow seven nominations in two weeks, giving Reid the votes he wanted without having to make the rules changes he didn’t really want to make.

But to get to that result, Reid also engaged in a good deal of self-bluffing.

Long before the deal was struck, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell had told Democrats that the frozen state of affairs over executive nominees could be thawed if President Barack Obama simply reappointed nominees to the National Labor Relations Board by a constitutionally questionable recess appointment. The day before the deal was struck, he expanded the offer, promising Republicans would clear the way for all seven nominees if Reid would step away from the nuclear option.

Even into the late hours of Monday, according to reports, Reid rejected his offer.

Hours later, Reid announced a mutually agreeable deal that seemed strikingly similar.

The pattern repeated over resetting the interest rates for student loans. For weeks, Reid railed against Republican pressure to peg the interest rates to the 10-year Treasury note. He dismissed a similar White House plan, arguing that Congress had not spent enough time considering solutions to rubber-stamp anything more elaborate than a simple extension of the pre-July 1 interest rates.

Two weeks ago, Reid dismissed and sidelined a bipartisan offer by Democrats and Republicans hoping to strike a middle ground, suggesting it was untenable as a compromise because it did not guarantee students manageable loan rates once long-dormant interest rates start to rise.

But late this past week, Reid announced that he would get behind that same basic proposal, praising the merits of compromise.

That a majority leader known for his deal-making skills would push hard against a deal that he eventually relents on in the name of compromise is hardly surprising.

But Reid's demonstrated pattern raises questions about how and where he might eventually agree to deals on policy matters on which he has vowed he will not budge.

Last week, Reid told Republicans in no uncertain terms that he would not agree to more budget cuts in exchange for raising the debt limit, which the country is expected to meet as the fiscal year winds down in late September.

And over the past few weeks, Reid has expressed confidence that Republicans in the House will roll over and take up the Senate’s immigration reform bill because he will accept nothing less than a pathway to citizenship.

Reid has a more winning track record when he’s negotiating against House Speaker John Boehner than against McConnell — due largely to the leverage that 201 House Democrats clamoring for a chance to vote on certain high-profile bills have managed to hold over the head of the speaker.

But how far might Reid bend on issues where he has pledged he will not? If the past is any prologue, it may be more than he’s letting on.

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