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Colleagues honor Feinstein as death leaves Senate vacancy

California governor has pledged to name Black woman to seat

A vase of roses sits on the black-draped desk of Sen. Dianne Feinstein on Friday as colleagues praised her career.
A vase of roses sits on the black-draped desk of Sen. Dianne Feinstein on Friday as colleagues praised her career. (Screenshot/CSPAN)

Tributes poured in Friday for California’s barrier-breaking Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who died at age 90 after a 50-year career in politics. 

Her death Thursday night leaves vacancies on several of the Senate’s most sought-after committees, and a potentially fractious decision for her state’s Democratic governor.

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer called Feinstein “one of the most amazing people who ever graced the Senate, who ever graced the country.”

“She was smart. She was strong. She was brave. She was compassionate,” the New York Democrat said after the chamber went silent for several minutes in Feinstein’s honor. “But maybe the trait that stood out most of all was her amazing integrity. Her integrity was a diamond. Her integrity shone like a beacon across the Senate and across the country for all to see.”

Schumer also praised Feinstein’s time as Senate Intelligence Committee chair, saying she would “dig” into issues for months, stand up to the intelligence agencies and “would take on any force, any special interest, any opponent with … relentless integrity, and would wear those opponents down until she succeeded.”

[Obituary: Feinstein was a defender of the institution of the Senate]

As Schumer and other senators paid tribute to the late senator, her desk in the Senate chamber was draped in a black cloth with a vase of white roses resting on top.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who served with Feinstein for decades, spoke his voice breaking about how he noted he and his wife, former Transportation and Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, grew close to Feinstein and socialized with her outside of Senate duties.

“Those of us who were fortunate to call Dianne our colleague can say we served alongside the longest-serving female senator in American history. Dianne was a trailblazer. And her beloved home state of California and our entire nation are better for her dogged advocacy and diligent service,” McConnell added.

Hours later, the House also held a moment of silence after brief remarks delivered by former Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who was flanked by other members of the California delegation.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., seen talking with talks reporters in the Capitol in 2018, died Thursday night. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

“She left on her own terms,” Pelosi said, noting that Feinstein was a San Francisco neighbor. “Her legacy will be a long one that we will all be inspired by.”

Feinstein died Thursday night in her Washington, D.C., home, after having cast her last vote earlier in the day on a motion to begin debate on a legislative vehicle for a continuing resolution to prevent a partial government shutdown. 

She became the first woman mayor in San Francisco history in 1978, after the assassination of Mayor George Moscone. Fourteen years later, she and Barbara Boxer were elected as California’s first female senators.

Over the past year, Feinstein had shown signs of cognitive decline and faced a number of serious health struggles in recent months. Some observers noted that the once nimble and savvy politician had trouble remembering conversations and keeping up with Senate business.

California scramble

Feinstein’s announcement in February that she would not seek reelection set off a scramble, with three Democratic House members — Reps. Barbara Lee, Katie Porter and Adam B. Schiff — announcing campaigns for the rare open Senate seat.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, said earlier this month he would appoint a Black woman to fill the remainder of Feinstein’s term should it become open, but that he did not want to give an advantage to one of three House members running. Since Kamala Harris gave up her seat after being inaugurated as vice president in 2021 and Newsom appointed Alex Padilla to replace her, there has not been a Black woman in the Senate. 

“That primary is just a matter of months away,” Newsom said on NBC’s Meet the Press. “I don’t want to tip the balance of that.”

[Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a life in photos]

Lee, who is Black and trails both Porter and Schiff in fundraising, slammed Newsom on Sept. 10, saying that for him to appoint a Black woman “only as a caretaker to simply check a box is insulting to countless Black women across the country.”

Several prominent California Black women have been mentioned as potential interim replacements for Feinstein, including San Francisco Mayor London Breed and Secretary of State Shirley Weber. 

Two leading progressive groups — the Bernie Sanders-aligned group Our Revolution and the labor-backed California Working Families Party — have endorsed Lee.  

On Friday, Lee, Schiff and Porter all praised Feinstein and brushed off questions about who Newsom should appoint to fill her term. 

“Sen. Feinstein was an amazing person,’’ Porter said. “Today is about honoring her legacy about doubling down on our commitment to continue her amazing fights on things like gun violence prevention.”

Schiff said he is “totally focused on her legacy and her passing right now.”

Lee posted a statement on her social media accounts expressing her condolences to Feinstein’s family. “Senator Feinstein broke glass ceilings for women in politics and fought fearlessly for safer communities free of gun violence,’’ Lee wrote.

Committee openings

Feinstein’s death also raises questions about her seat on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Earlier this year, when Feinstein sought to step aside temporarily from her seat on the Judiciary Committee so that Democrats could process contentious nominees, Republicans blocked the move.

But with the senator’s death, the seat is now vacant, as are slots on the Appropriations, Judiciary, Intelligence, and Rules and Administration panels.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., the ranking member on the Judiciary Committee who formally objected when Schumer tried to make the temporary replacement, said circumstances would be different in the event of a resignation.

“I would be in the camp of following the precedent of the Senate, replacing the person, consistent with what we have done in the past,” Graham said in an April CNN interview.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., when asked how Feinstein’s death might affect the Senate’s ability to process judicial confirmations, said it is “a real first test” of whether McConnell and Republicans will join Democrats “in a bipartisan effort to make it a smooth transition.”

“I’m going to assume the best instead of the worst,” Durbin said.

John T. Bennett, Niels Lesniewski, Ryan Tarinelli and Mary Ellen McIntire contributed to this report.

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