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Is Harry Reid bluffing on Obama nominations?

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV)

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) pauses as he speaks to members of the media after a Democratic Senate leadership election at the U.S. Capitol November 13, 2014 in Washington. Photo Credit: Getty Images

The story on judicial and executive branch nominations this week(and beyond?) is fascinating. Plenty is at stake, with appointments for a dozen federal district judges and lots of executive branch personnel being considered, including a nominee for surgeon general. Had the appointments waited until Republicans take over the Senate next month, all would have been delayed; some might have been stopped entirely.

Right now, the Democratic majority has the votes to confirm the outstanding nominations. However, Republicans can still delay the confirmation process, extending it over several days, or maybe for another full week, before all the nominees get a vote. That leaves four scenarios for the days ahead:

1. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., isn't bluffing and Republicans conclude that Democrats are determined to stay in Washington long enough to work through the nominations list before heading home for the holidays. If so, all that Republicans can accomplish by delaying the votes is to force Senators to stick around. In that case, they might soon cave, enabling the nominations to be confirmed rapidly and the Senate to wrap up its work today or tomorrow.

2. Reid is bluffing and Democratic Senators aren't willing to stay in Washington. In that case, at some point in the next day or so, after some nominations are processed, Reid will give up and send Senators home.

3. Reid isn't bluffing, but Republicans conclude that he is. In that case, grumpy senators will stay in Washington, everyone will waste time and the nominations ultimately will be confirmed.

4. Reid isn't bluffing but Republicans are terrified of being called "RINOs" and "squishes" if they don't engage in pointless delay for the mere sake of it. That yields the same unpleasant result as above.

I suppose there is one more possibility: The parties could cut some sort of deal freeing Senators to go home while granting Democrats many, but not all, of the confirmations they would get if they were to stay at work until Christmas.

The odds of the outcome favoring the Democrats were improved by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, whose tantrum over the spending bill for 2015 forced the Senate into an extra Saturday session. As a result, Reid took advantage of quirky Senate rules, and now more of President Barack Obama's executive-branch nominees are likely to be confirmed.

I doubt Reid is bluffing -- there are some high-priority nominations in this batch -- but you never know. Either way, Democrats would have to say that they're willing to work until midnight on Dec. 24. If it turns out that Reid really is bluffing, that's a fairly pathetic commentary on Senate Democrats. I'm usually the first to defend politicians from the charge that they don't work hard, but that would be a case where it's really true.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist covering U.S. politics.


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