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.
But other issues, including eliminating the filibuster and expanding the size of the nation’s highest court, continue to split the party. Unlike typical intraparty battles, however, the divide is not strictly between the progressive and moderate wings: Instead, against the backdrop of the Supreme Court battle, new quasi-alliances are forming.
In perhaps the most striking shift, Senator Jon Tester of Montana, a centrist and one of the few Democratic senators to represent a state that Mr. Trump won in 2016, said last week that he would be open to eliminating the 60-vote threshold in the Senate — backing away from the position he held just a year ago.
“I didn’t come here to not do anything. I came here to get things accomplished,” Mr. Tester told National Review. “I think the filibuster’s very important, and I think it makes for better legislation, and I still believe that. I still support the filibuster, but, like I said, we’ll see what happens with the other side. Who knows what’s going to happen?”
Sept. 28, 2020, 11:38 a.m. ET
It was a change of heart that reflected a widely held belief among Democrats that Republicans in the Senate have weaponized Washington’s rules. And it underscored the extent to which the Supreme Court fight has galvanized even some moderate Democrats to reconsider the status quo if their party wins back a Senate majority.
Yet even as Democrats favoring big changes slowly gain allies, several moderate senators have continued to reject the idea of filibuster reform, including Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Dianne Feinstein of California.
“I think the filibuster serves a purpose,” Ms. Feinstein, the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said last week. “It is not often used, it’s often less used now than when I first came, and I think it’s part of the Senate that differentiates itself.”
Eager to gain more support from Senate colleagues, some progressives are now mounting an aggressive campaign to persuade the holdouts to join the movement. On Wednesday, Ms. Warren and Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon are expected to join a Zoom call hosted by organizations including Our Revolution and MoveOn. The session is aimed at urging grass-roots groups to begin pushing for changes to the Senate, a broad appeal that could include ending the filibuster.
Progressives are also planning to pressure Gov. Gavin Newsom of California to appoint someone to Senator Kamala Harris’s seat, should she become the vice president, who supports structural changes.
Recent polling by The New York Times and Siena College suggests the public may be more open to institutional changes than some elected officials believe.
By an overwhelming margin, 59 percent to 26 percent, respondents said they supported statehood for Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico.
Expanding the Supreme Court from its current nine justices has proved to be a tougher sell.
Asked on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday about increasing the number of high court justices, Mr. Manchin, senator of West Virginia, said, “That is not something that I would support — I can’t support that.”
“I’m not going to vote for anything that would cause, basically, not to be able to work in a bipartisan way,” he said.
Senator Doug Jones of Alabama, who is facing a tough race for re-election this year, expressed similar concerns during a Facebook Live event last week, calling “those kinds of things” a “slippery slope.” Even Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, the standard-bearer of the party’s left wing, has said repeatedly he did not favor that idea.
“Packing the courts is a great idea when you’re in power, not such a great idea when your political opponents are in power,” Mr. Sanders told The New York Times last year. In an interview with The Times last week, he sidestepped the issue, saying he would discuss it at a later time.
Mr. Sanders has also previously opposed eliminating the filibuster, but recently endorsed the idea.
But his reluctance to discuss expanding the Supreme Court symbolized the current posture of most Democrats — to deal with these issues later.
In Mr. Biden’s administration, or after Mr. Trump is re-elected, the party will have to reconcile differences between ideological and generational factions.
For now, all they care about is winning.
“Our overall focus is the next 38 days,” Ms. Bass said on Saturday, referring to Election Day. When asked what issues help Democrats win, she did not mention court expansion, filibuster elimination or busting the Electoral College, and returned instead to the kitchen table concern that Mr. Biden’s campaign is emphasizing: “Health care, health care and health care.”