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Sen. Dianne Feinstein makes her return to Judiciary Committee

More than two-month absence from the panel was a focus of criticisms and sparked calls for the California Democrat to resign

Sen. Dianne Feinstein returns to the Judiciary Committee on Thursday, ending a more than two-month absence due to illness.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein returns to the Judiciary Committee on Thursday, ending a more than two-month absence due to illness. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Sen. Dianne Feinstein returned to Congress this week after a months-long absence from illness, but it was not fully clear Thursday morning if she would make it to a meeting of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Her spot on the panel became part of the criticism of the 89-year-old California Democrat, in part because Democrats needed her on the committee to advance certain judicial nominees.

“I know that she’s been through some significant health challenges, and we all wish her the very best,” Senate Judiciary Chair Richard J. Durbin of Illinois said as he spoke about the judicial nominees on the agenda to open the meeting.

“I intend to call them shortly, and if Sen. Feinstein arrives, we may be able to take up those additional nominees very quickly,” Durbin said.

It took more than an hour. The committee had already voted on three less controversial judicial nominees, and moved on to some legislation, when Feinstein arrived in a wheelchair. Durbin stopped the committee action.

“We’ll have a voice vote in just a moment. I want to welcome back our colleague, Sen. Dianne Feinstein,” Durbin said.

The attention in the room turned toward the door where Feinstein entered. Feinstein and Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois were the first women to serve on the Judiciary Committee when she was elected to the Senate in 1992. She has already announced that she won’t run for reelection in 2024.

Last month, Feinstein had announced plans to temporarily step aside from the Judiciary Committee until she could return to work in Washington. Senate Republicans blocked the move.

On Thursday, Republican and Democratic lawmakers gave her a standing ovation. Feinstein walked approximately 10 yards to her chair behind the dais and sat down, then acknowledged the applause.

Photographers crowded in. Feinstein shook Durbin’s hand. She did not seek recognition to speak.

The collegial welcome didn’t last long. Durbin quickly moved to a judicial nominee who was stuck in committee — one who needed Feinstein’s in-person vote to advance to the Senate floor.

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, spoke first. “I’m glad to welcome our colleague Sen. Feinstein back to this committee, but I will say what’s going to happen next I think is going to be quite unfortunate for the American people,” Cruz said.

“Because what we’re about to see this committee do is vote on several nominees who are so extreme, who are so unqualified that they could not have a prayer of getting even a single Republican vote on this committee,” Cruz said.

After about 24 minutes of debate, Durbin called a vote on the judicial nomination. The clerk called Feinstein’s name.

“I ask to be recorded as voting in person on the three nominees considered earlier, and I vote ‘aye’ now,” Feinstein said. She voted “aye” on the next two roll call votes for nominees, a critical vote to advance them to the floor.

She made no other comments. And the committee adjourned.

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