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Feinstein to temporarily step down from Judiciary Committee after calls to resign

'We need to put the country ahead of personal loyalty,' California Democratic Rep. Ro Khanna says

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., is seen in the Capitol subway on Feb. 15.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., is seen in the Capitol subway on Feb. 15. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Facing calls to resign, California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein said Wednesday she plans to temporarily step aside from the Judiciary Committee until she can return to work in Washington.

Her decision offers a compromise of sorts for those who want her to step aside, some of whom are worried her absence is preventing Democrats from advancing judicial nominations in the 51-49 split Senate.

California Rep. Ro Khanna is among the Democratic lawmakers and activists calling on Feinstein, his senior home-state senator, to resign, saying in a tweet earlier Wednesday that “it is obvious she can no longer fulfill her duties.” 

Feinstein, 89, who has already announced she will not run for reelection in 2024, has been absent from the Senate for nearly two months after a case of shingles that had her hospitalized in early March. 

“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,” Feinstein said in a statement Wednesday night.

Feinstein said she will continue working from home in San Francisco and will return to Washington “as soon as possible once my medical team advises that it’s safe for me to travel.” 

In addition to missing floor votes, Democrats are especially concerned that Feinstein’s absence is holding up action on party priorities, like advancing judicial nominees in the Judiciary Committee. Her vote is needed to prevent a deadlock with Republicans since Democrats only have a one-seat majority on the panel.

“I understand that my absence could delay the important work of the Judiciary Committee,” Feinstein said, noting she asked Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., “to ask the Senate to allow another Democratic senator to temporarily serve until I’m able to resume my committee work.”

A Schumer spokesperson said the leader plans to follow Feinstein’s wishes and next week he will ask the Senate to appoint a temporary replacement. The move would require unanimous consent of all 100 senators in order to avoid procedural headaches around filling the position temporarily.

Similar dynamics exist on the other committees in which Feinstein serves, but those panels — Appropriations, Intelligence and Rules — have fewer immediate priority bills or nominees than Judiciary.  Feinstein’s statement did not mention any plans to step aside from those committees.

However, if Feinstein were to remain absent into the summer it could hamstring the Appropriations Committee, which is hoping to mark up the 12 annual spending bills. While some of those bills could draw bipartisan support, Democrats would likely want Feinstein around to be able to break a tie if needed. 

“It’s time for @SenFeinstein to resign. We need to put the country ahead of personal loyalty,” Khanna said in his tweet. “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.”

Khanna did not cite a specific reason for why he feels Feinstein can no longer fulfill her duties. His tweet came shortly after Politico reported unnamed Democrats “close to her, as well as top-ranking congressional aides” said the shingles diagnosis has taken a heavy toll on her and they’re concerned Feinstein won’t ever return to the Senate. 

Khanna appears to be the first member of Congress to publicly and directly call on Feinstein to resign. However, many Democratic activists have recently called on Feinstein to resign, and Rep. Jamaal Bowman, R-N.Y., retweeted one of them. 

Rep. Dean Phillips, D-Minn., said in his own tweet that he agreed with Khanna. 

“Senator Feinstein is a remarkable American whose contributions to our country are immeasurable,” he said. “But I believe it’s now a dereliction of duty [for her] to remain in the Senate and a dereliction of duty for those who agree to remain quiet.”

Khanna passed on an opportunity to run in 2024 to fill the Senate seat Feinstein plans to vacate. Instead, he endorsed Rep. Barbara Lee and is co-chairing her campaign.

Lee is just one of three California Democrats in the House looking to make the leap to the Senate. Reps. Katie Porter and Adam B. Schiff are also running for Feinstein’s seat. Former Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who carries large influence in the California delegation and the Democratic Party, has endorsed Schiff. 

Of the three, 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. 

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