Tuesday, 27 Oct 2020

More Democrats Embrace Structural Change. They’re Ready to Press Joe Biden.

A party that is increasingly seeking to play by different rules is led by a figure who helped create the current ones. The outcome of the fight will help define the Democratic Party going forward.



By Sydney Ember and Astead W. Herndon

There is a battle brewing among Washington Democrats that is set to boil over if Democrats take back the Senate and former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. defeats President Trump in November.

Even as Republicans line up behind Mr. Trump and a vision of conservative government, Democrats are navigating fault lines in their own ranks over how they would govern as the controlling party. Some Democrats, and not just on the left wing, are increasingly embracing structural changes to the political system — including eliminating the Senate filibuster, ending the Electoral College and granting statehood to Washington, D.C. — while others reject these ideas as norm-busting power grabs that are unpalatable to a majority of voters.

The tussle has only intensified with the looming Supreme Court battle over President Trump’s nominee, Judge Amy Coney Barrett. The potential for a decades-long conservative majority on the court has prompted change-seeking Democrats to add another item to the policy list: expanding the size of the Supreme Court.

“If Republicans confirm Judge Barrett, end the filibuster and expand the Supreme Court,” Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts said in a tweet on Saturday. Even Chuck Schumer, the Senate minority leader, said last week that “everything is on the table.’’

But the growing momentum for structural change faces a six-foot roadblock, hand delivered by the primary voters within their own party: Mr. Biden.

A consummate Washington institutionalist who served in the Senate for nearly four decades, Mr. Biden to this day often speaks in fond and wistful terms about Senate customs of yore. From a policy standpoint he has largely rejected calls to eliminate the filibuster, only recently signaling some openness to doing so, or to expand the Supreme Court. He has said he opposes the movement to defund the police and has even proposed increasing funds to law enforcement, with conditions.

In comparative terms, Mr. Biden would be a very progressive president should he succeed in his White House bid. On issues of climate, education and even health care, he has proposed an agenda that has drifted leftward. Mr. Trump, in misleading and exaggerated terms, has tried to portray Mr. Biden as a vessel for upheaval, and a hostage to a radical left.

Yet on institutional change, Mr. Biden has not matched the urgency from the left that the election and the Supreme Court fight have stirred. Since Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death, Mr. Biden has studiously avoided echoing some of his fellow Democrats who advocate for deep structural change, instead broadly imploring Republican senators to “follow your conscience” on the court vacancy. Asked in a television interview last week if he would consider adding seats to the Supreme Court, he said that it was a “legitimate question,” but then said he was not going to answer it.

The discord could set Democrats on an inevitable collision course: a party that is increasingly seeking to play by different rules led by a figure who helped create the current ones. The outcome of the fight will help define a party that has rallied around the mission of defeating Mr. Trump and Senate Republicans in November but remains ideologically fractured.

Representative Karen Bass of California, the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus who was in the running to be Mr. Biden’s vice-presidential selection, said in an interview on Saturday that the calls for transformational changes to government were coming from a place of Democratic frustration. Though Mr. Biden has repeatedly insisted he could work with Republicans once Mr. Trump is removed, Ms. Bass said that the Senate had become so dysfunctional that even Mr. Biden would have to admit that the bipartisan chamber of his era was gone.

“I would guess that he would say that ‘this Senate is not the Senate that I served in,’” said Ms. Bass, who was elected to Congress in 2010.

But she said that Democrats for now were united around issues like protecting the Affordable Care Act, which Mr. Trump has threatened to dismantle, and ensuring safe access to ballots in November. After that, she said it was hard to predict what issues would remain salient if Democrats achieved a majority government.

“I think the preparation for a new administration is going to take priority over things like whether or not there’ll be a change in a filibuster or all those other issues,” she said.

Some of these once-fringe issues were already entering mainstream discussion even before the Republican rush to replace Justice Ginsburg. Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the House of Representatives passed a historic bill establishing Washington, D.C., as the 51st state earlier this year. And the idea of ending the Electoral College gained traction in the Democratic presidential primary, with candidates including Senator Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg supporting it. Ms. Warren tied the issue to the 2016 election result, when Mr. Trump defeated Hillary Clinton despite losing the popular vote.

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