The Senate may be heading for a bitter showdown before the end of the year over the plethora of filibusters used to block President Barack Obama's judicial and other political appointments -- and both parties are nervous about the implications.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told his colleagues over the last few days that if a deal isn't reached he will move to force a change in the Senate rules to allow some nominees to be approved by a simple majority vote. That would remove the threat of a filibuster, or endless debate, which can only be terminated with the support of 60 Senators. Democrats have a 55 to 45 advantage in the Senate.
Republicans have blocked a number of nominees over the last few months, including Congressman Mel Watt of North Carolina to head the Federal Housing Finance Agency and three appointees to the U.S. Court of Appeals, claiming it isn't necessary to fill the court vacancies.
These are out of the ordinary tactics. Rarely is a sitting member of Congress, from either party, blocked from an appointment and substantive complaints haven't been raised against the judicial nominations.
Both sides know a rule change would be full of risks. For Reid, if he is successful, any change would likely leave a bitter aftertaste politically and cause the Senate to be even more dysfunctional. Republicans run the risk of further embedding their obstructionist image with voters and taking attention away from the problems with Obamacare.
Thus the Senate Democratic leader is still moving cautiously ahead. Yesterday, according to a Democratic Senator and other Capitol Hill sources, Republicans put out private feelers about a deal.
It's the second time this year that repeated Republican filibusters have created a potential crisis. In July, when Reid was about to force a rules change, several Republicans, led by John McCain of Arizona, negotiated a temporary truce, and the Senate approved most of the stalled nominees.
By blocking the appointments to the Appeals Court, often considered the second most important judicial venue behind the Supreme Court, Republicans have infuriated the Democratic majority. Even some Democratic lawmakers -- ranging from senior members worried about institutional fragility, to newer lawmakers facing tough reelection battles -- have indicated to Reid they support him moving ahead with the changes.
If there is an accord, it probably would be more of a compromise than last time when Obama got all the nominations he wanted, permitting some, though not all, of the blocked nominees to receive a vote.
Separately, Republican reservations have been raised about the president's choice of Janet Yellen to head the Federal Reserve Board. But Republicans, as well as Democrats, predict she will be confirmed in this Senate session.
(Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter.)