“Our colleague and friend has made her wish clear,” Schumer, D-N.Y., said on the floor, seeking consent for Feinstein to step down temporarily. “Today, I am acting not just as leader, but as Dianne’s friend in honoring her wishes until she returns to the Senate.”
Judiciary ranking member Lindsey Graham of South Carolina objected.
“This is about a handful of judges that you can’t get the votes for, and I have been a pretty consistent vote in the Judiciary Committee in a bipartisan fashion. I understand that you won the election and we lost and I want to make sure we process judges fairly,” Graham said. He argued the reason for the proposed change in membership was for Democrats to confirm judicial nominees he thinks “should never be on the bench.”
Schumer told reporters earlier Tuesday that he wanted Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, D-Md., to take Feinstein’s seat in her absence. Feinstein, 89, has not voted in the Senate since mid-February, and was hospitalized for treatment for shingles.
“I look forward to her full recovery and return to the Senate. In the meantime, and with her blessing, I am honored that Majority Leader Schumer has recommended me as a temporary replacement on the Judiciary Committee,” Cardin said in a statement. “I served on the Judiciary Committee when I first came to the Senate, and I am prepared to rejoin the committee in a temporary capacity for Senator Feinstein.”
But Cardin likely will not be joining the Judiciary panel. The GOP-led blockade was expected, with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell having said in a morning floor speech, “Senate Republicans will not take part in sidelining a temporarily absent colleague off a committee just so Democrats can force through their very worst nominees.”
While occasional changes to committee posts are usually agreed to by unanimous consent, such changes are considered debatable and may need 60 votes to invoke cloture.
McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, cited four of President Joe Biden’s judiciary nominees before the committee whose path to confirmation Republicans do not want to ease.
“It’s purely the Democrats’ political choice to hold the relatively more reasonable nominees hostage so the unqualified ones can move in a pack,” McConnell said.
It wasn’t just Republicans expressing opposition to the plan. Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., responded “I definitely oppose” when asked whether he supported removing Feinstein from the Judiciary Committee. Feinstein had asked last week to step aside temporarily.
The White House joined congressional Democrats in being critical of McConnell’s opposition.
“This is something that Senator Feinstein asked for. It is her request. And it is flat wrong to … take partisan advantage from health issues of a colleague,” Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said. “The American people reject that kind of scorched earth type of behavior.”
It was unclear what will happen next. Senators were expressing hope that Feinstein is able to return to the Senate in the near future.
Judiciary Chair Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, who is also the majority whip, said the next step is “really up to Senator Feinstein.”
Some Democrats, including California Rep. Ro Khanna, called for Feinstein to resign when it became clear she would not return from the Easter/Passover recess. She offered to temporarily step aside from Judiciary in response.
“They want her to resign. I mean, they forced her out of the chairmanship of the Judiciary Committee,” Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., said. “They’re trying to force her to resign. You’ve got the congressman from her own state calling on her to resign. I mean, they’re trying to force her out of office, which is, you know, really, I think unseemly.”
Khanna is supporting the 2024 Senate campaign of Democratic Rep. Barbara Lee for the seat Feinstein already plans to retire from at the end of this Congress.
Schumer said after Tuesday’s Democratic caucus lunch that Durbin and members of the committee were also considering what to do about the current requirement that home-state senators return blue slips for district court nominees in order for the committee to take them up. It has not always been enforced in the past, and Durbin is under pressure to disregard the tradition going forward.
With Feinstein still absent and no path to fill her seat, that may be a moot point with Republicans unlikely to want to move nominees rejected by home-state GOP senators.
The blue slip issue was not in play Tuesday morning, with the Judiciary Committee holding a hearing on three of Biden’s nominees to the federal bench. Two hailed from states with only Democratic senators, Illinois and Maryland, while the third, Louisiana trial lawyer Darrel J. Papillion, secured the support of home-state Sens. Bill Cassidy and John Kennedy, both Republicans.
“I haven’t looked it up, but I’m pretty sure Darrel is a Democrat. I say that because President Biden nominated him,” Kennedy said. “I mention it only because I have gotten so many letters in support of Mr. Papillon from Republican public officials, including most Republican members of our Louisiana Supreme Court.”
Lindsey McPherson and Caitlin Reilly contributed to this report.