Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell have been slugging it out on the Senate floor today over Reid’s threat to revisit filibuster reform, and the escalating tone suggests this is now very real. Pay close attention to the statement Reid released today about their exchange:

Today, Senator McConnell defended the status quo of gridlock and obstruction in Washington, saying ‘there is no real problem here.’ I could not disagree more. Senator McConnell may choose to ignore it, but the problem of gridlock in Washington is real and it needs to be fixed.

Presidents — be they Republican or Democratic — deserve to have the people working for them that they choose. The Senate’s role is to advise and consent. But Republicans have corrupted the Founders’ intent, creating an unreasonable and unworkable standard whereby the weakest of rationales is often cited as sufficient basis for blocking major nominees. Due to Republican obstruction, the de facto threshold for too many nominees to be confirmed has risen from a simple majority to a supermajority of 60 votes. On judicial nominees, Republicans’ obstruction is equally unprecedented…There is no reason to delay qualified nominees for so long except delay itself, and it is little wonder we have a judicial vacancy crisis in this country.

Despite the agreement we reached in January, Republican obstruction on nominees continues unabated. I want to make the Senate work again – that is my commitment.

This statement is wholly focused on GOP obstruction of judicial and executive branch nominations. It excoriates the current GOP-created 60-vote threshold for nominees as unacceptable, and pledges to do something about it.

As I reported the other day, quoting a Senate Democratic aide, Reid is eying the possibility of changing the rules via the “nuclear option” — a simple majority vote — to end filibustering on nominations, but not on legislation.

Lending some weight to this threat, the Huffington Post reports that Reid is delaying the push to confirm Richard Cordray as head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau until July, after immigration reform is done. A Reid aide tells HuffPo that this is about postponing a major war over all of Obama’s nominees until July — which is also Reid’s target to trigger the nuclear option if necessary.

This — along with Reid’s public statements today — amounts to the sharpest line yet drawn by Reid. The Senate Majority Leader has been striking a delicate balancing act. His challenge has been to slowly escalate the threat level by giving his threats ever more specificity, while simultaneously maintaining an aura of credibility about them. The current threat comes very close to saying that if Republicans obstruct Cordray — and others, such as Gina McCarthy to head the EPA, and Thomas Perez as Labor Secretary — then Reid will push the nuke button.

Indeed, as Sahil Kapur notes, if the GOP blocks those nominations, the pressure on Reid to press the button will get very intense indeed. Major Democratic constituencies (labor, environmentalists) have a big stake in these nominees, and the consumer protection bureau represents a major component of one of Obama’s signature domestic initiatives — Wall Street reform.

By the way, all of this could have very far reaching implications indeed. As Jonathan Chait notes today, Obama and Republicans are headed for a major showdown over climate change this summer, one focused on his pending plan to curb carbon emissions from existing power plants. And the battle could unfold in the D.C. Circuit Court, where Obama has not yet filled vacancies. Republicans will filibuster any efforts to do that.

At any rate, given today’s public statements from Reid, if the current level of GOP obstructionism continues, it’s hard to see how he has room to not make good on his threat to hit that button.

 

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant -- what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.