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As Amy Coney Barrett heads for confirmation, Dianne Feinstein faces outside pressure to step aside

California Democrat will be leading the minority during floor debate

Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and ranking member Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., attend the Senate Judiciary Committee executive business meeting on Supreme Court justice nominee Amy Coney Barrett in Hart Senate Office Building on Thursday, October 15, 2020.
Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and ranking member Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., attend the Senate Judiciary Committee executive business meeting on Supreme Court justice nominee Amy Coney Barrett in Hart Senate Office Building on Thursday, October 15, 2020. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Pool)

Grassroots pressure on Democrats to oust Dianne Feinstein from atop the Senate Judiciary Committee has spilled out into the open since the end of last week’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Amy Coney Barrett.

Feinstein, an 87-year-old California Democrat serving her fifth full term, drew criticism from progressives for her conduct as ranking member during the hearings, particularly when she praised — and then hugged — Chairman Lindsey Graham.

“Mr. Chairman, I just want to thank you. This has been one of the best set of hearings that I have participated in, and I want to thank you for your fairness and the opportunity of going back and forth. It leaves one with a lot of hopes, a lot of questions, and even some ideas, perhaps some good bipartisan legislation we can put together to make this great country even better. So thank you so much for your leadership,” she told the South Carolina Republican on Thursday as the four days of hearings wrapped up.

A preeminent criticism of Senate Democratic leaders and outside groups has been that Barrett’s nomination has been jammed through inappropriately so close to the election. Feinstein’s comments cut across that line of attack.

She will again be expected to play a leading role during Thursday’s committee markup of the nomination and again Friday and over the weekend as the nomination moves to the Senate floor.

Feinstein says Democrats accomplished what they set out to do in last week’s hearings by focusing on health care and abortion rights, especially since Republicans had made it so clear that it would be all systems go for Barrett to be confirmed, regardless of what the Democratic minority might attempt.

“The Senate is structured so the majority had absolute control over this process,” Feinstein said in a statement. “When Republicans signaled they’d move ahead in the face of all objections, the only thing we could do was show this nominee would radically alter the court, and we accomplished that.”

But an array of liberal outside groups are already pressing for Feinstein to be removed from her perch atop the committee, especially if Democrats succeed in taking the Senate majority after Election Day.

Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, was among the leaders of outside groups calling for the Democrats to appoint a new leader of the committee.

“Americans — whose lives hang in the balance — deserve leadership that underscores how unprecedented, shameful and wrong this process is. The Ranking Member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Senator Dianne Feinstein, failed to make this clear and in fact offered an appearance of credibility to the proceedings that is wildly out of step with the American people,” Hogue said in a statement.

Such criticism of Feinstein is all the more remarkable because she typically garners perfect voting scorecards with such organizations.

Groups such as Demand Justice, which focuses on judicial nominations, and Fix Our Senate, which advocates eliminating the legislative filibuster, have also called for Feinstein to be removed from committee leadership.

“We want Committee leaders who understand what’s at stake, how [Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell] and his allies like Sen. Graham have broken the Senate, and what needs to be done to fix it and begin to restore our democracy,” Fix Our Senate spokesman Eli Zupnik told CQ Roll Call in a statement Monday.

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No easy path

But sidelining senior senators is always fraught with peril, even in past cases where there has been clear evidence that the lawmaker may not be up for the workload that comes with wielding a full committee gavel.

Unlike the Senate Republican Conference, the Democrats have no internal rules providing term limits for chairmen and ranking members. That means senators often stay in plum posts as long as possible.

The late Sen. Robert C. Byrd, the legendary West Virginia Democrat who spent a career directing federal projects to the Mountain State, did not agree to relinquish the chairmanship of the Appropriations Committee until past his 90th birthday.

“I want to stress that this is a decision I made only after much personal soul-searching, and after being sure of the substantial Democratic pickup of seats in the Senate,” Byrd said in announcing his decision to surrender the gavel after the 2008 election, citing assurances that West Virginia’s needs would be protected under the next chairman, Hawaii’s Daniel K. Inouye.

Both Feinstein and the spending panel’s current top Democrat, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, were on the Appropriations Committee when Byrd was in his declining years, and his voluntary departure came after significant cajoling from his colleagues.

It’s not necessarily true that Feinstein would need to be bumped by the Democratic Conference, however. Leahy, who would be president pro tempore in a Democratic-controlled Senate, maintains his seniority at the Judiciary Committee, so he could get the first choice of gavels in 2021.

Leahy most recently was the chairman of the Judiciary Committee from 2007 to 2015.

Moving fast

McConnell made clear again Monday that the Senate will be going full speed ahead to confirm Barrett as soon as the nomination is reported from the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday.

The Kentucky Republican is expected to file a cloture motion Friday to limit debate on the Barrett nomination. That move would set the groundwork for a procedural vote to cut off debate on the nomination during a rare Sunday session of the Senate. Depending on timing, that could set up a final confirmation vote as early as Monday, Oct. 26.

“We’ve heard Democrats try to take hostage our very institutions of government to stop this precedent-backed process from moving forward,” McConnell said on the Senate floor. “But none of the distortions can even begin to cloud the incredible qualifications of this nominee.”

Such comments make Democrats and their allies seethe, particularly since McConnell refused to grant so much as a hearing in 2016 to Merrick Garland, President Barack Obama’s nominee of to fill the Supreme Court seat of the late Justice Antonin Scalia.

Scalia died in February 2016, but McConnell said it was too close to the election to confirm a replacement. That gambit paid off for him when President Donald Trump won the election and later nominated Neil M. Gorsuch to fill Scalia’s seat. After changing Senate rules to lower the filibuster threshold for Supreme Court nominees, Republicans confirmed Gorsuch.

“I look forward to the Judiciary Committee’s vote on Thursday. The full Senate will turn to Judge Barrett’s nomination as soon as it comes out of committee,” McConnell said.

As the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary panel, Feinstein is in line to serve as the minority floor manager for the Supreme Court nomination debate, opposite Graham on the GOP side.

Currently a judge on the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Barrett should be set for a confirmation no later than next Tuesday, Oct. 27.

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