WASHINGTON – For some senators, the Democratic effort to temporarily replace ailing 89-year-old Dianne Feinstein on the Judiciary Committee is about speeding up confirmation of President Joe Biden's federal court nominees. But for others, particularly her most long-serving peers, it’s personal.
Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, who is the same age as the California Democrat and has worked with her for three decades on the committee, said he thinks Democrats have been trying to force her out of office “because she’s old.” He called that “anti-human.”
The attempt to replace her on the committee is “disrespectful and not in keeping with her many contributions,” said Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, a Republican who is close friends with Feinstein.
Feinstein is not the first senator to take an extended medical absence or face uncomfortable questions about age or cognitive abilities. But the open discussion over her capacity to serve shows just how much the Senate has changed in recent years, with high-stakes partisanship replacing a more collegial, clubby atmosphere.
It also highlights the difficulty, and the sensitivity, surrounding Democrats’ uphill efforts to replace Feinstein’s vote on the influential committee as she recovers from a case of the shingles. Her absence, which comes as her health and memory has noticeably declined in recent years, means that some of Biden's picks for the federal bench are stalled in committee.
Democrats say Republicans snubbed a sick colleague when they blocked Feinstein's unusual request to be temporarily replaced.
“It is flat wrong to seek partisan advantage from health issues of a colleague," White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Wednesday. “The American people reject that kind of scorched earth approach to governing.”
Republicans say Democrats are unfairly trying to force her off one important committee — she serves on others — simply to game the system because they lack the votes to move Biden's most partisan nominees.
It is a marked difference from the Senate of years past.
Collins said Feinstein has been treated differently from men in the Senate who have had memory or health issues. Examples include Republican Sens. Thad Cochran of Mississippi and Strom Thurmond of South Carolina and Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia.
Cochran and Byrd remained atop the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee after their health began to fail; Byrd eventually stepped down from the position voluntarily; Cochran resigned from Congress.
“The contrast is pretty sharp,” said Collins, who served with all three men and has worked closely with Feinstein for years. Collins said senators were more collegial and respectful of each other in the past, and there was less pressure on the men to resign or step down from a committee.
She said she believes the efforts to push Feinstein off the committee are sexist. “We’re all human, and senators get ill,” Collins said. “Because the Senate has been disproportionately male for so long, I think what we’re seeing now is a different standard being applied.”
Older senators in declining health were more protected by leaders and members of both parties in the past, Collins said.
Feinstein herself requested a temporary replacement on the Judiciary Committee in a statement last week. But the pressure on her to step back from her duties due to questions about her age and cognitive abilities dates back several years.
In 2020, Feinstein said she would not serve as the top Democrat on the committee after criticism from liberal advocacy groups about her handling of hearings on Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination for the Supreme Court. Earlier this year, Feinstein said she would not serve as the Senate president pro tempore, or the most senior member of the majority party, even though she was in line to do so. The president pro tempore opens the Senate every day and holds other ceremonial duties.
In February, she announced she would not run for reelection in 2024.
Angst over health issues in the Senate is not new, and many senators are well over retirement age. Also, Feinstein is not the only senator take an extended absence this year.
Democrat John Fetterman of Pennsylvania, who is 53, returned to the Senate this week after checking himself into the hospital for clinical depression in February. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who is 81, also returned this week after falling and hitting his head in early March.
Feinstein asked for the pause in her service on the committee after Democratic Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., called on her to resign from the Senate. Khanna said it is “unacceptable” for her to miss votes to confirm judges who could be weighing in on abortion rights, a key Democratic priority. Khanna has endorsed Democratic Rep. Barbara Lee, one of several California Democrats already running to replace Feinstein in the Senate.
After Khanna’s call for her to resign, Democratic Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the former House speaker, defended her longtime California colleague. Like Collins, Pelosi suggested sexism is at play.
“I don’t know what political agendas are at work that are going after Sen. Feinstein in that way,” said Pelosi, 83, in an interview with a California radio station. “I’ve never seen them go after a man who was sick in the Senate in that way.”
McConnell said on the Senate floor that he believes Democrats are trying to “sideline” Feinstein, whom he called a “titanic figure.” Elected in 1992, she was the first woman to serve as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee and the first woman to hold the rank as the top Democrat on Judiciary Committee. Before her Senate career she was the first woman to be mayor of San Francisco.
“Let’s be clear,” said McConnell in remarks on the Senate floor. “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.”
Schumer on Tuesday declined to answer when asked if Feinstein should resign. He would only say that he had spoken to Feinstein last week and “she and I are both very hopeful that she will return soon.” Her office has not provided a timeline for her return.
As Schumer called up the resolution to replace Feinstein, he said he was asking for support in replacing her "not just as leader, but as Dianne's friend in honoring her wishes until she returns to the Senate."
Democrats acknowledge it’s an uncomfortable question as they try to balance the health of colleagues against their efforts to legislate and approve nominations with a narrow 51-49 majority.
“If any one of us is missing, it has an impact on the ability of the Senate and of committees to function,” said Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del. “And so any conversation about our health and continuing service has its sensitivity.”
Associated Press writer Darlene Superville contributed to this report.