Democrats plot strat­egy to make GOP pay in 2021

San Francisco Chronicle Late Edition - - FRONT PAGE - By Joe Garo­foli

Democrats are feel­ing pow­er­less about the Repub­li­can drive to replace the late Jus­tice Ruth Bader Gins­burg with Pres­i­dent Trump’s nom­i­nee for the Supreme Court, and un­der­stand­ably so — there’s lit­tle that Demo­cratic sen­a­tors or their sup­port­ers can do to stop it.

As a re­sult, some are look­ing ahead to 2021 and plan­ning ways to get even — pro­vided that Democrats flip the White House and Se­nate and hold the House in Novem­ber. Sev­eral ideas that were once on the fringes are surg­ing up the Demo­cratic agenda as fun­da­men­tal changes that could blunt Repub­li­can power in the long run.

Among them: end­ing the Se­nate fil­i­buster, the

su­per­ma­jor­ity needed to pass vir­tu­ally any leg­is­la­tion; grant­ing state­hood to Wash­ing­ton, D.C., and Puerto Rico as a way to add four likely Demo­cratic sen­a­tors and a hand­ful of elec­toral votes; and ex­pand­ing the Supreme Court to 13 mem­bers, with Joe Bi­den choos­ing the next four.

“Right now, there is an ap­petite for all three, and it is ex­pand­ing be­yond just pro­gres­sive Democrats,” said Alan Min­sky, ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of Pro­gres­sive Democrats of Amer­ica. The party’s base “wants to see things passed, and we’ve gone around and around on this, and peo­ple are tired of it. Democrats have grown a back­bone.”

Be­fore they even start con­tem­plat­ing these changes, Democrats face one big chal­lenge: Bi­den isn’t on board with most of these ideas, at least not yet.

But other main­stream Democrats are com­ing around to at least some of them. When Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Leader Mitch McCon­nell made it clear he in­tended to hold a vote on Trump’s nom­i­nee this year, Se­nate Demo­cratic leader Chuck Schumer coun­tered that “noth­ing is off the ta­ble for next year.”

Grass­roots ac­tivists are rar­ing to go, even if it means turn­ing on re­luc­tant Democrats like Cal­i­for­nia Sen. Dianne Fe­in­stein. On Wed­nes­day, the left­lean­ing Courage Campaign urged its sup­port­ers to “help us flood Sen. Fe­in­stein’s of­fice with calls to make sure she rep­re­sents Cal­i­for­nia, not her own self­in­ter­est,” af­ter she said she op­posed do­ing away with the fil­i­buster.

But it’s not just Fe­in­stein whom ac­tivists will have to per­suade. They will have to work on Bi­den, who won the Demo­cratic nom­i­na­tion by po­si­tion­ing him­self as some­one who could win the mod­er­ate swing states that voted for Trump four years ago.

He has no in­ter­est in push­ing far­reach­ing pro­pos­als that re­quire a lot of ex­pla­na­tion to unini­ti­ated vot­ers six weeks be­fore elec­tion day. In­stead, at a rally in Philadel­phia on Sun­day, he pushed a mes­sage of mod­er­a­tion.

“Ac­tion and re­ac­tion, anger and more anger, sor­row and frus­tra­tion at the way things are in this coun­try now po­lit­i­cally, that’s the cy­cle that Repub­li­can sen­a­tors will con­tinue to per­pet­u­ate if they go down this dan­ger­ous path that they put us on,” Bi­den said. “We need to de­es­ca­late, not es­ca­late.”

Bi­den has also pointed out that any changes Democrats might make in 2021 would sim­ply be ex­ploited by Repub­li­cans the next time they take power.

David Atkins, a Demo­cratic Na­tional Com­mit­tee mem­ber from Santa Bar­bara who has been ad­vo­cat­ing for all three is­sues, isn’t wor­ried about en­gag­ing in a tit­for­tat with Repub­li­cans.

“Peo­ple worry about a race to the bot­tom,” Atkins said. “But what peo­ple don’t re­al­ize is that we are al­ready there.”

UC Berke­ley Law School Dean Er­win Che­merin­sky, who sup­ports in­creas­ing the size of the court, said Bi­den is smart to hang back.

“I don’t think there is any need for Joe Bi­den to take a po­si­tion on this is­sue today,” Che­merin­sky said. “There will be time for that later.”

Here is a look at each change catch­ing fire with pro­gres­sives:

End­ing the fil­i­buster: This would be the most foun­da­tional change, as it would make it far eas­ier for Democrats to ac­com­plish their other goals.

The fil­i­buster al­lows a mi­nor­ity of 40 sen­a­tors in the 100­mem­ber cham­ber to block a vote on any bill. All it would take is a sim­ple ma­jor­ity of the Se­nate to kill it.

The fil­i­buster is not en­shrined in the Con­sti­tu­tion — the Se­nate sim­ply adopted it over the years. South­ern seg­re­ga­tion­ists long used it to block civil rights re­forms, some­thing one of the Democrats’ most popular fig­ures, former Pres­i­dent Barack Obama, pointed out when he called for end­ing it in his eu­logy at Rep. John Lewis’ fu­neral.

To this day, it al­lows “mi­nor­ity rule to con­tinue,” Atkins said.

Bi­den, how­ever, spent nearly four decades in the Se­nate and, like Fe­in­stein, is an in­sti­tu­tion­al­ist. He said dur­ing the pri­maries that he op­posed elim­i­nat­ing the fil­i­buster, and has avoided an­swer­ing ques­tions about it since Gins­burg died.

Ex­pand­ing the Supreme Court: The Con­sti­tu­tion doesn’t set a limit on the num­ber of jus­tices. All it would take to ex­pand the court would be a vote of Congress and ap­proval by the pres­i­dent. Che­merin­sky, the UC Berke­ley Law School dean, said Democrats should do it if Repub­li­cans push a Gins­burg re­place­ment through without Trump first be­ing re­elected.

“I don’t be­lieve in uni­lat­eral dis­ar­ma­ment,” he said. “If Repub­li­cans are will­ing to di­vide the coun­try, it doesn’t make any sense that Democrats should do noth­ing.”

But here as well, Bi­den is not a fan. In an Oc­to­ber de­bate, he pre­dicted that if Democrats add jus­tices, “next time around, we lose con­trol, they (Repub­li­cans) add three jus­tices. We be­gin to lose any cred­i­bil­ity the court has at all.”

State­hood for D.C. and Puerto Rico: This is the low­est pri­or­ity for Democrats. Again, all it would take would be a vote of Congress and a “yes” from the pres­i­dent, along with sup­port from D.C. and Puerto Rico.

Two in three Amer­i­cans sup­port state­hood for Puerto Rico, ac­cord­ing to a 2019 Gallup Poll, a fig­ure that has re­mained rel­a­tively sta­ble over the past 50 years. Sup­port for D.C. state­hood is weaker, with 40% of reg­is­tered vot­ers back­ing it and 41% pre­fer­ring that it re­main a fed­eral district, ac­cord­ing to a June YouGov poll.

The bounty for Democrats if both are ad­mit­ted to the union: four new sen­a­tors and as many as five ad­di­tional House mem­bers, plus a likely gain in elec­toral votes.

Bi­den’s view­point: He sup­ports state­hood for D.C. and “self­de­ter­mi­na­tion” for the is­land.

Grass­roots ac­tivists are rar­ing to go, even if it means turn­ing on re­luc­tant Democrats like Cal­i­for­nia Sen. Dianne Fe­in­stein.

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