Bluffing in politics sometimes works. Being known as a bluffer, however, is an unambiguously bad thing. It makes all of your threats less potent and means that you will sometimes be forced to carry out your sincere threats because – to your mutual disadvantage – whoever you were threatening didn’t believe you.*
Republicans fighting health care reform – that is, all of them – wanted to convince House Democrats that they couldn’t get what they wanted by passing the Senate bill and fixing it via budget reconciliation. “Pass-and-fix” was the only path to getting a bill once the Republicans had a cloture-blocking minority in the Senate. So the Republicans threatened that, if the House Democrats passed HCR and then a reconciliation measure with the fixes in it, the Republicans would tie up the reconciliation bill with Byrd Rule challenges and dilatory amendments. The threat was to leave the Democrats stuck with a law including the Cornhusker Kickback and other bits of sausage, as well as a tougher tax on high-cost health plans than some House Dems and their union backers were willing to swallow, while not closing the “doughnut hole” in Medicare prescription drug coverage.
To make their threat more credible, the Republicans pretended that doing things via budget reconciliation was some sort of Constitutional enormity, equivalent to the “nuclear option” of ending the filibuster by declaring the Senate rules unconstitutional.
It almost worked; Pelosi and Reid had to work hard to convince wavering House Dems that the Senate would deliver. Part of their argument was that the reconciliation measure with the fixes in it would be hard for Republicans to come out against; did they really want to support the Cornhusker Kickback? Adding student loan reform – saving the Treasury and college studentse tens of billions of dollars at the expense of the banks – to the reconciliation mix was designed to make the Republicans’ problem harder and thereby make their threat less credible.
Well, the Senate bill is now law, and the House reconciliation bill is on its way to the Senate. If you’re Mitch McConnell, what do you do? Carrying out the threat is a really unattractive option; among other things, it reinforces the “Party of No” image and the whole issue of Republican obstructionism, and it does so in a context where there’s not enough on the line to seem to justify it. A filibuster to prevent a socialist takeover and the establishment of death panels is one thing; a filibuster-equivalent to help the banks keep their student loan rake-off is something else again.
Looks as if the Republicans have just about decided to offer only token resistance to the reconciliation fix. But here they face the price of their earlier decision to make their threat more credible by inventing a Constitutional issue around reconciliation. If they were sincere about believing that, fighting all the way would be mandatory; if they fold, they’re revealed as not merely four-flushers but as liars.
Pardon me while I go weep for poor Mitch and his cronies.
* In this politics is unlike poker, where a reputation for bluffing means you win more money when you actually have a strong hand. Poker is zero-sum; politics is not.