(WASHINGTON) — With Sen. Dianne Feinstein requesting to be temporarily replaced on the Judiciary Committee as she recovers from shingles, Senate Democrats on Thursday began working to break the logjam that has held up critical judicial nominations for weeks.
A spokesperson for Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said he will ask the Senate next week to allow another Democratic senator to temporarily fill her place on the high-profile committee on which Democrats hold a mere one-seat majority.
Rep. Ro Khanna, who like Feinstein is a California Democrat, was the first to publicly call on Feinstein to step down, questioning Thursday morning, “Why [does she] not just take the step and resign instead of going through all of these motions?”
“It has become painfully obvious to many of us in California that she is no longer able to fulfill her duties as she doesn’t have a clear return date,” he said on CNN. “We haven’t been able to confirm judges at a time where women’s rights and voting rights are under assault. Senator Durbin himself, the chair of the Judiciary, has said that the reason we’re not being able to move these judges is because Senator Feinstein isn’t there.”
Asked by CNN’s Manu Raju earlier this week whether Feinstein’s absence had longer ramifications on Democrats’ ability to confirm politically-important judges, Judiciary Chair Sen. Dick Durbin said, “Yes, of course it does.”
“And so as someone from California, I felt an obligation to say what’s so many colleagues are saying in private,” Khanna added.
The 89-year-old senator has been home in San Francisco since early March after she was diagnosed with shingles and hospitalized for about a week. She was due to return with the full Senate next week following its two-week recess — but in a statement late Wednesday, after Khanna and another House Democrat called on her to resign, she said “due to complications” she would be further delayed.
“When I was first diagnosed with shingles, I expected to return by the end of the March work period. Unfortunately, my return to Washington has been delayed due to continued complications related to my diagnosis,” she said.
Striking a defiant tone, Feinstein did not give an expected return date but said she intends to “as soon as possible.”
“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,” she said.
Feinstein has missed 60 of 82 votes this Congress. Fourteen of those votes have been on President Joe Biden’s judicial nominees, drawing criticism from Democrats who want to approve left-leaning judges for coveted lifetime appointments.
Senate Republicans could vote to block her temporary replacement, but typically, the opposition party does not meddle in committee assignments for the other party. Still, the potential for meddling is reason enough, Khanna said Thursday, for Feinstein to save Democrats the trouble.
“Any single senator, Republican senator, can object to that,” Khanna said of selecting a replacement. “Sen. Schumer has done the right thing. He said he’s going to try to get that done in the Senate. But we have to see if that’s even possible, and I guess my question is, why not just take the step and resign.”
Khanna reignited longstanding concerns surrounding Feinstein’s health on Wednesday when he tweeted that Democrats “need to put the country ahead of personal loyalty.”
“While she has had a lifetime of public service, it is obvious she can no longer fulfill her duties. Not speaking out undermines our credibility as elected representatives of the people,” he said.
A half-hour later, Rep. Dean Phillips, D-Minn., replied directly to Khanna’s tweet in agreement.
“Senator Feinstein is a remarkable American whose contributions to our country are immeasurable. But I believe it’s now a dereliction of duty to remain in the Senate and a dereliction of duty for those who agree to remain quiet,” he said.
But former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who also resides in San Francisco, defended her longtime colleague and suggested she sees more criticism because she’s a woman.
“It’s interesting to me. 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,” Pelosi told reporters on Wednesday.
Rep. John Garamendi, another California Democrat, also expressed support for Feinstein.
“Feinstein deserves our respect and the opportunity to complete her final term in the U.S. Senate,” he told Punchbowl News.
Asked about Feinstein’s statement on Thursday, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said that Biden and the first lady “wish Senator Feinstein the very best and a speedy recovery” and that he is “deeply appreciative of her support” for his judicial nominees.
Democrats have felt Feinstein’s absence perhaps even more so coupled with the absence of newly-elected Pennsylvania Sen. John Fetterman, who was hospitalized for six weeks with severe depression but returns next week. Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is recovering at home after spending five days in the hospital last month due to a bad fall. It’s unclear when he will return but GOP colleagues say he’s also eager to do so.
Feinstein, the oldest member of Congress, has already voluntarily relinquished key positions as a result of questions about her health. She gave up her post of president pro tempore — a position given to the most senior member of the majority party. In 2020, amid a progressive uproar after Feinstein’s perceived leniency during then-Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings, the senator announced she would surrender her top post on the judiciary panel in the new session in 2021.
While the longest-serving Democratic senator has, so far, refused calls to resign mid-term, Feinstein announced in February she would retire at the end of her term, opening up her seat for the first time in 30 years and kicking off an expensive race to replace her. Khanna, himself, was rumored to be weighing a run for the Senate seat but announced last month he was supporting a bid by Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif. Reps. Adam Schiff and Katie Porter have also launched campaigns to replace her.
If Feinstein were to step down before her term is up in roughly 20 months, California Gov. Gavin Newsom would be tasked with appointing someone to finish out her term. Newsom has said previously that he would nominate a Black woman to replace her, noting the lack of representation in the Senate.
ABC News’ Trish Turner contributed to this report.
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