Amid concerns about her health, Sen. Dianne Feinstein has, thus far, resisted calls to step down.
The California Democrat, who is the oldest member of the Senate at 89, has missed more than a month of Senate business after being diagnosed with shingles, but that has left Democratic senators — and the millions of voters who gave them control of the Senate — without key votes needed on legislation and, perhaps more significantly, on judicial appointments.
With Democrats holding a one-vote majority on the powerful Judiciary Committee, a panel on which Feinstein sits and once led, her absence has slowed the appointment process severely.
On Wednesday, multiple Democrats publicly called for Feinstein to step down. That includes Rep. Ro Khanna, a fellow Californian.
Rep. Dean Philips of Minnesota echoed Khanna.
So, seemingly in an effort to quiet such calls, Feinstein officially requested that Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer appoint someone to temporarily serve in her place on the Judiciary Committee. She wrote:
I intend to return as soon as possible once my medical team advises that it’s safe for me to travel. In the meantime, I remain committed to the job and will continue to work from home in San Francisco.
I understand that my absence could delay the important work of the Judiciary Committee, so I’ve asked Leader Schumer to ask the Senate to allow another Democratic senator to temporarily serve until I’m able to resume my committee work.
A spokesperson for Schumer said the majority leader would ask the Senate next week to allow another Democratic senator to serve on the Judiciary Committee temporarily.
But appointing a replacement requires 60 votes in the Senate, meaning Schumer will need to get some Republicans to agree to enable Democrats to resume appointing the judges they want in lifetime positions. And there’s understandable doubt that Republicans will agree to do that.
Therein lies the tension.
Feinstein has said she plans to retire at the end of her term at the end of next year, after 32 years in the Senate. Should she vacate her seat early, California Gov. Gavin Newsom has vowed to appoint a Black woman in Feinstein’s place, an acknowledgment that Kamala Harris’ elevation to vice president left California without its first Black woman in the Senate. And there’s already a hotly contested race to replace Feinstein in the 2024 election, with several California Democrats — Reps. Barbara Lee, Katie Porter and Adam Schiff — already in the running.
I’m empathetic to those who may feel these conversations seem a bit crass or morbid. We’ve all experienced loved ones making their way through health maladies, and I suspect we all hope for these people to be treated with tenderness at all times.
But criticism of Dianne Feinstein the senator doesn’t necessarily amount to criticism of Dianne Feinstein the person. That is, unless Dianne Feinstein the person thinks she’s entitled to keep her public service job in lieu of effective public service.
It’s now abundantly clear that Feinstein’s job is being affected, and with that being the case, her constituents, her colleagues and, ideally, her inner circle have every reason to call for her to step down. If a firefighter, sanitation worker or a mailperson were equally incapable of doing their job in a timely and effective manner, there’d be reason to question their continuing in the role as well.
This is one point on which I differ greatly from Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. In remarks to reporters Thursday, the former House majority leader criticized efforts to get Feinstein (her longtime friend) to resign, saying: “I don’t know what political agendas are at work that are going after Senator Feinstein in that way. I’ve never seen them go after a man who was sick in the Senate in that way.”
It’s an odd quote that seems to ignore the fact Sen. John Fetterman, D-Pa. — who was hospitalized after a stroke during his campaign last year and took time away for depression this year after being sworn in as a senator — has faced frequent questions about his fitness to serve.
Nonetheless, the “political agenda” at play, as far as I’m concerned, is the Democratic one. As in, Senate Democrats made appointing judges a large part of their sales pitch in the 2020 and 2022 elections, and that agenda isn’t fully “at work” — to use Pelosi’s phrase — as long as Feinstein isn’t.
But Pelosi’s words were quite revealing. Toward the beginning of her remarks in the clip above, she references Feinstein’s “great leadership” over her decades in Washington.
Such things are deserving of praise. Maybe even a parade.
But a perpetual seat on the most powerful deliberative body in the United States, in spite of obvious deficiencies, seems to be a bridge too far.
No one is entitled to that.