I’m not sure folks appreciate just how epic a political battle we could be heading for this summer, when a number of current storylines could culminate in Dems opting for the nuclear option to revisit filibuster reform via a simple majority. In the most important story of the morning by far, the New York Times reports:

President Obama will soon accelerate his efforts to put a lasting imprint on the country’s judiciary by simultaneously nominating three judges to an important federal court, a move that is certain to unleash fierce Republican opposition and could rekindle a broader partisan struggle over Senate rules.
In trying to fill the three vacancies on the 11-member United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit at once, Mr. Obama will be adopting a more aggressive nomination strategy. He will effectively be daring Republicans to find specific ground to filibuster all the nominees.
White House officials declined to say who Mr. Obama’s choices will be ahead of an announcement that could come this week, but leading contenders for the spots appear to include Cornelia T. L. Pillard, a law professor at the Georgetown University Law Center; David C. Frederick, who often represents consumers and investors at the Supreme Court; and Patricia Ann Millett, a veteran appeals lawyer in Washington. All three are experienced lawyers who would be unlikely to generate controversy individually.

This is welcome news, because Obama has been far too lax in pushing judicial nominations. But the larger immediate context is important. Harry Reid is threatening to revisit rules reform by simple majority — i.e., the nuclear option — and the case he is making privately is that if Republicans continue at current levels of obstructionism, he is prepared to move in July to end the filibuster on judicial and executive branch nominations. A senior Senate Democratic aide told me that Obama has privately told Reid that he will support him if he decides to opt for the nuke option.

Reid has privately signaled that if Republicans filibuster three key executive branch nominations — his picks for Labor Secretary and to head the EPA and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau — then he’ll likely go nuclear. But the coming battle over the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, which is a major judicial and ideological battleground, could also constitute a major addition to this combustible mix. As Ryan Grim notes, Senate aides have wanted Obama to push forward with nominations precisely because this would coincide with Reid’s escalation of nuclear threats, and all indications are that we’re headed for a “major showdown in July.”

The D.C. Circuit court will also be front and center in a key fight set for this summer. As Jonathan Chait noted recently, the Obama administration is expected to unveil its long-awaited plan to curb carbon emissions on existing power plants, which will lead to a legal battle in just that arena.

As the Times piece notes, none of Obama’s nominations to the court would be expected to be controversial, but for the fact that Republicans (in the words of Mitch McConnell) have decided that his efforts to fill vacancies on it constitutes an effort to “stack the court.” In fact, it is Republicans who are trying to game the court: As the Times puts it, they are “pushing a proposal to eliminate the three empty slots from the court by shifting them to circuits in other parts of the country,” which would leave the court with a “strongly conservative flavor.” This all but ensures that Republicans will filibuster Obama’s nominations.

To be sure, the preferred outcome for Reid is for Republicans to back down on enough nominations to allow Dems to avoid hitting the nuke button. Republicans will surely play a dangerous game here in which they will try to get away with just as much obstructionism as they possibly can, gambling that Reid ultimately won’t be able to round enough support among Senate Dems (some of whom are reluctant to change the rules by simple majority) to to go nuclear. Republicans may be right, and Reid and Dems may not ultimately go through with it. But with tensions now escalating on not one, but two fronts — executive branch and judicial nominations — the possibility of miscalculation, and with it the chance that Dems will have no choice but to change the rules, is likely to grow.

* BOB DOLE ADMITS TO GOP’S POST-POLICY PROBLEM: Over the weekend, Bob Dole gave his fellow Republicans a bit of advice:

“I think they ought to put a sign on the National Committee doors that says closed for repairs until New Year’s Day next year and spend that time going over ideas and positive agenda.”

Some of us have been pointing out for a while now that the GOP is in the grip of a kind of “post policy nihilism” that has prevented it from developing any kind of affirmative agenda for government to play in people’s lives, so it’s good to see the idea getting wider discussion.

* WHY GOP CAN’T HEED BOB DOLE’S ADVICE: Steve Benen gets the key dynamic exactly right: “Sure, Republican lawmakers could listen to Dole, accept legislative compromises, and work with people with whom they disagree, but they know that such actions would only lead to primary challenges, conservative condemnations, and short careers. So the radicalization continues apace.”

* A TEST FOR THE GUN CONTROL FORCES: In Colorado, several Democratic legislators, including the president of the State Senate, are the targets of a conservative effort involving the NRA to recall them as punishment for their votes for sweeping gun reform legislation that recently became law in the state. Gun control groups will seek to beat back this challenge to show they can go toe to toe with the “gun rights” brigade on the state level, where future battles will be critical, even as efforts remain currently stalled on the federal level.

* GUN REFORM FORCES EYING THE LONG GAME: The New Republic’s Alec MacGillis has a good piece on the thinking inside the gun reform movement’s long term plans — which are being laid primarily by Mike Bloomberg’s Mayors Against Illegal Guns — for building a serious infrastructure to challenge the NRA. As MacGilliss notes, many Washington insiders remain in the grip of outdated assumptions holding that the NRA is omnipotent and that voters, even in red states, are far more conservative on guns than they really are. It will take years of hard work to change this, as well as to show organization and energy around the issue can be sustained.

 * JOE MANCHIN STILL PUSHING BACKGROUND CHECK COMPROMISE: Also key in the New Republic piece: Senator Manchin says he is still in discussions over ways to get Senate colleagues to support his compromise proposal to expand background checks, claiming: “It’s not going away.” This is a signal to the gun control groups to keep pushing and organizing.

 * ELIZABETH WARREN CAREFULLY STAKES OUT LIBERAL ROLE: The Boston Globe has an interesting look at how the new Senator from Massachusetts is balancing open appeals to her national liberal following with an awareness of the limits on the power of individual Senators to “move the needle” on progressive legislation where possible:

“A lot of these are long games,” Warren said in an interview. “So turning up the heat under the big financial institutions, stirring the conversation on ‘too big to fail,’ doesn’t change the law today. But it helps push toward change.”

The Senate is a place where individual lawmakers can have outsized influence, and Warren already seems to recognize that there are an array of tools at a Senator’s disposal that can help move issues forward that are worth pursuing, even incrementally.

 * TODAY IN SIMPLISTIC TEA PARTY JARGON: Glenn Kessler takes apart Senator Mike Lee’s silly claim that Washington “produces almost nothing of economic value,” a perfect example of Tea Party jargon at its most simplistic. The rhetoric here from Lee — who along with Ted Cruz and Rand Paul is emerging as a leading spokesman for the Senate GOP’s Tea Party wing — goes to the heart of a real philosophical view of government’s role in the economy, which, as Kessler demonstrates, is just completely wrongheaded.

* AND YOUR SORELY NEEDED TUESDAY COMIC RELIEF, SENATE GOP EDITION: The Hill reports that Senate Republicans are upset with Obama for not doing more to woo him for deficit reduction discussions. Yes, they are actually saying this:

Some Republicans think the president has become distracted from the deficit by intensified public controversies over the attack on the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, the Internal Revenue Service’s targeting of Tea Party groups and the Justice Department’s investigation of the Associated Press.

Shorter Senate GOP: Why is Obama allowing our overheated efforts to tie him to every scandal we can trump up to distract him from pursuing a deficit deal our leadership has said is a nonstarter under any circumstances?

What else?