The senator’s confidants and allies scoff at her detractors and are firing back.
Dianne Feinstein is once more displaying the stubborn approach that’s powered her storied career as pressure mounts on her to return to Washington or resign.
Confidants and top allies to the 89-year-old Democratic senator are rebuffing calls for her to not just temporarily remove herself from the Senate Judiciary Committee but step down from her job entirely before her term is up in 2024.
They argue her request this week to be replaced on the committee while recuperating from shingles should satisfy critics — at least for now. They view the calls for her to quit as laced with ageism, sexism, ideological disputes and unchecked political opportunism. And there’s considerable anger being directed at her detractors for not exercising patience during a difficult time while showing her the respect they think she’s earned.
The resolve bubbling up from Feinstein’s orbit adds yet more fuel to the Democratic Party’s combustible situation. The senator has been absent from Congress for nearly two months while dealing with her illness, which means the party can’t move some of President Joe Biden’s nominees through the Judiciary Committee. Aides say they still believe she will return when medically cleared to travel. But Feinstein so far has offered no timeline for when she will be back in Congress, prompting concern among fellow party members that she won’t really return at all.
But even in illness, the senator is characteristically refusing to buckle. Outside pressure campaigns have done little to move Feinstein in the past — and instead have often backfired.
She withstood blistering criticism from the gun lobby over the 1994 assault rifle ban; her support for the death penalty (which she later reversed) and ire from the intel community over her 2014 decision to release a report on the CIA’s use of torture after 9/11. Feinstein later enraged liberals when she suggested in a friendly interview early in his term that Donald Trump might evolve into “a good president,” yet she survived the California Democratic Party abandoning her a few months later in 2018 and handily won reelection that year over a progressive challenger. Even as California voters grew far more progressive than the senator who was first elected in 1992, Feinstein’s politics barely budged.
Allies insist there is a sharp disconnect between media coverage of her current absence and the views among her supporters back home. Feinstein and many of her aides aren’t even on Twitter, not that the political mobs on the platform would sway them anyway. The slights are shrugged off but not forgotten.
Generally, her team is intensely protective of her and not particularly forthright about her health. Her statements to the press come slowly, and are often prompted by persistent questions about her whereabouts and condition rather than as an attempt to inform or shape the narrative around her.
On a personal level, she has long viewed herself as an exacting and effective workhorse for California, pointing to her decades of seniority and relationships to argue that the state would be in far worse hands without her presence in Washington. Just a few months before her shingles diagnosis, she became the longest-serving woman senator.
But now, she has no personal presence in Washington. And her health could turn worse.
Feinstein’s critics argue the situation has become untenable given there’s no clear indication on when she’ll return; that a state of nearly 40 million can’t operate with just one senator. But Khanna’s resignation calls have only been echoed by one other lawmaker — Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.) — and may have strengthened Feinstein’s support elsewhere.
Khanna is an early and vocal supporter of California Rep. Barbara Lee, one of the Democrats running to replace Feinstein in 2024. And Lee has privately told associates she disagreed with Khanna’s comments and stressed that the sentiment is not shared by her, according to two people familiar with her conversations. An official with Lee’s campaign declined to comment, pointing to an earlier statement in which they said her primary concern is for Feinstein’s health and that she’s “wishing the senator a full and speedy recovery.”
Lee has gone out of her way to be deferential to Feinstein, waiting to launch her own campaign until the senator said she wasn’t running for reelection. But Feinstein stepping aside early could be beneficial to Lee, as California Gov. Gavin Newsom has pledged to appoint a Black woman if given the chance.
“Does anything Ro Khanna said help Barbara Lee for the purposes of securing an appointment?” asked a close Lee ally. “Of course not.”
Feinstein began exploring whether she could temporarily step down from the Judiciary Committee before the first call to resign, according to a Senate aide familiar with the discussions. And her supporters remain hopeful that her willingness to do so will take some heat off of her. Several Democrats praised the request and said the senator deserves the space to recover.
But, according to several aides, Senate Republicans will almost certainly gum up the process, which requires bipartisan support. They and others expressed skepticism that party leaders would let Democrats so easily make a move that would allow the Biden administration to approve judges.
There appears to be no modern precedent for a senator to be temporarily removed from a committee only to return in the same Congress, though there are recent examples of senators leaving committees for health reasons while still remaining a member of the chamber, according to the Senate Historical Office.
Assuming Republicans block a motion to appoint a replacement by unanimous consent, 60 votes would be needed. Feinstein’s supporters could try to rally votes from some Republicans who have long worked with her, such as Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia or perhaps even Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.
As the political calculations are made, a sadness has set in among many Democrats back home over the fate of the oldest sitting senator. Feinstein’s health complications have mired what should have been a splendid sendoff for a barrier-breaking figure.
A veteran strategist in the state summarized the mood in a word: “heartbreaking.” Another longtime official assessed the feeling in more blunt terms, offering simply that, “she stayed too long at the fair.”