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Feinstein asks to be temporarily replaced on Judiciary Committee amid calls to resign

Sen. Dianne Feinstein has been receiving treatment for shingles in California, keeping her from returning to Washington. She's seen here in the U.S. Capitol Building in February — the last month in which she cast a Senate vote.
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Sen. Dianne Feinstein has been receiving treatment for shingles in California, keeping her from returning to Washington. She's seen here in the U.S. Capitol Building in February — the last month in which she cast a Senate vote.

Updated April 13, 2023 at 6:07 PM ET

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is moving to temporarily replace Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., on the powerful Judiciary Committee, after Feinstein acknowledged medical complications from shingles have kept her sidelined for longer than expected.

The move could help Senate Democrats advance federal judges for confirmation — a key goal in any administration, but one that both parties have put particular focus on in recent years, as partisan divides have grown wider in U.S. society.

Feinstein, 89, hasn't cast a vote since Feb. 16, missing nearly 60 of the Senate's 82 votes so far this session. She's the oldest member of Congress, and said in early March that she was hospitalized with shingles.

Plan for a temporary switch follows calls for resignation

Even before her shingles case, Feinstein's age and cognitive health were a concern, with worrying signs that the senator was having problems with her memory. Feinstein announced last year that she won't seek reelection in 2024.

Several Democrats recently called on her to resign before her term is up, including California Rep. Ro Khanna — who spoke out weeks after becoming the co-chair of Rep. Barbara Lee's campaign to replace Feinstein.

"While she has had a lifetime of public service, it is obvious she can no longer fulfill her duties," Khanna said.

Speaking on All Things Considered Thursday afternoon, Khanna elaborated:

"I don't think that someone no matter how remarkable their achievements can be absent in their role, especially in this moment, where we need an active senator to get the president's judges confirmed, when we need a senator from California pushing back against that the transphobia, the gay phobia that we have been hearing, and that's why I hope that we will have someone in that role," Khanna said.

As Roll Call notes, among the declared candidates, "Lee would be in the best position to benefit from Feinstein resigning early, as California Gov. Gavin Newsom has said he would appoint a Black woman to fill the seat if there were ever a vacancy."

What Feinstein and Schumer are saying

Feinstein says she has been working from her home in San Francisco, and doctors haven't yet cleared her to travel.

"When I was first diagnosed with shingles, I expected to return by the end of the March work period," Feinstein said in a statement Wednesday night. "Unfortunately, my return to Washington has been delayed due to continued complications related to my diagnosis."

Acknowledging that her absence could slow down the Judiciary Committee's work, Feinstein added, "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 says that he will "ask the Senate next week to allow another Democratic Senator to temporarily serve on the Judiciary Committee."

Judiciary Committee is the priority

The alarm Democrats feel over Feinstein's absence extends across the Senate, where the party holds a razor-thin edge, but it centers on the Judiciary Committee, which has set a goal of surpassing the number of federal judges confirmed under former President Trump.

The panel is chaired by Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin — who took over the role from Feinstein — and it has a long to-do list.

Its goals include plans to confirm more judges, and it wants to hold a hearing on new ethical questions surrounding the Supreme Court, after a ProPublica report that Justice Clarence Thomas accepted gifts of travel from a wealthy Republican donor.

There are also questions over whether the judiciary panel might play a role in the national fight over access to the abortion drug mifepristone.

Currently there are 10 nominees eligible for a committee vote for federal judgeships, with two more in the pipeline. Without Feinstein's vote, if these nominees don't have bipartisan support inside the Judiciary Committee, they could be stalled and unable to get a vote by the full Senate.

What the replacement process is like

The process for making a replacement on the Senate Judiciary committee can be complicated, especially in a Senate where Democrats effectively hold a 51-49 majority. Committee assignments are set by an organizing resolution, so the Senate would need to adopt a new one to change any slots on a panel.

Schumer could ask for unanimous consent to approve a resolution, but in that case, any one senator could object and block it. Senate GOP sources who were not authorized to talk about the plans say there are still some details to be worked out, including who would replace Feinstein and how long the "temporary" assignment would last.

A new resolution would need 60 votes to pass, and it's unclear whether any bloc of GOP senators would agree to help Democrats add another member to the judiciary panel.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.
Claudia Grisales
Claudia Grisales is a congressional reporter assigned to NPR's Washington Desk.
Deirdre Walsh is the congress editor for NPR's Washington Desk.