04/06/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Shelby Opening

Last month, the Pew Research Center released a poll that found that only 26 percent of respondents know that 60 votes are required to break a filibuster. No wonder Democratic complaints about Republican obstructionists have thus far failed to catch fire. It's just not all that easy to have a national conversation on the topic when three fourths of the country is in the dark about the process.

But all of that can change after today.

Congress Daily reports that Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) has placed a "blanket hold" on at least 70 of President Obama's nominations until he receives over $40 billion worth of earmarks for his state.

This is unconscionably outrageous. If it were occurring anywhere else but the Senate chamber it would be extortion. A felony. It is an egregious misuse of minority power, easily the most flagrant example in years.

Democrats now have an easy opportunity to pick a national fight with the Republican party. It may be tough to engage the American public in a conversation about filibuster reform, but it should take little effort to build a national consensus around the basic proposition that a single senator should not hold the federal government hostage in exchange for an earmark. That the national interest should not be jeopardized for the benefit of a single state.

Shelby offers the perfect opening for Democrats. It's not clear yet which specific nominations are being held up, but as that information comes to light, we will undoubtedly find that many, if not most are nominees for indisputably critical positions in a wide variety of fields, perhaps including national security.

The Democrats should move swiftly to elevate Shelby, defining him as one of the leading voices of the Republican party. That shouldn't be a hard sell; he's the ranking member of the Banking Committee as well as a senior member of the Appropriations Committee. President Obama should then address the issue directly, demanding that Sen. Shelby back down. He must refuse to give into Shelby's demands, no matter the circumstances. And he should use the issue to define the dangers of Republican obstruction in a way that is easy for everyday Americans to understand.

But he should do more than just that. President Obama should call out the Republican leadership, as well. A hold in the Senate only has real force because it is presumed to have the support of the minority party. Unless the GOP quickly denounces Shelby's action, it will be fair to assume that every member of the Republican caucus supports it.

The president couldn't have asked for an easier fight to pick. Sen. Shelby is now the symbol of Republican obstruction. He is the symbol of the toxicity that has invaded the Senate and threatened the government's ability to function.

What he has done is easy to understand and impossible to justify. For a badly bruised Democratic party, that may be just what the doctor ordered.