Dianne Feinstein presents Democrats with problem they can’t solve

The oldest member of Congress seems unlikely to resign, despite calls from fellow Democrats for her to do so.

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Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., returns to the Senate Judiciary Committee following a more than two-month absence at the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, May 11, 2023. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Since returning to Washington after a protracted absence earlier this month, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Ca., has failed to quell the controversy about her age and whether it is time for her to step down from a seat she has occupied for three decades.

At 89, Feinstein is the oldest member of Congress. The senior senator from California has a long list of accomplishments — but also a growing roster of detractors who say she is no longer able to properly serve her constituents.

Surrounded by aides

Feinstein returned to Washington on May 9, following a bout with shingles that led to a debilitating case of encephalitis. She had been absent for two and a half months, a period during which frustrations mounted.

Reticent during her illness, her staff has continued to shield Feinstein from public scrutiny since her return to Capitol Hill. During her wheelchair-bound forays to the U.S. Capitol, Feinstein is ringed by aides who form a kind of human barrier around her.

 Dianne Feinstein, in a wheelchair, leaves a meeting with aides.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein leaves a meeting in Washington, D.C., on May 18. (Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Those aides also appear to be doing the vast majority of her work, according to The New York Times: “They push her wheelchair, remind her how and when she should vote and step in to explain what is happening when she grows confused. They stay with her in the cloak room just off the Senate floor, where Feinstein has taken to waiting her turn to vote, then appearing in the doorway to register her ‘aye’ or ‘nay’ from the outer edge of the chamber.”

Blocking reporters

Journalists are used to accosting lawmakers in the Capitol’s labyrinthine hallways and elevators. But after one troubling exchange during which Feinstein appeared to forget that she had been absent from Washington, her aides have been especially assiduous about cutting off access to reporters.

Photographers have encountered the same challenge. Her staff have deployed "every trick in the book to stay out of sight and at a distance from the press," according to a Los Angeles Times staffer.

Californians want change

Dianne Feinstein in 1992.
Feinstein being sworn in at the Senate in 1992. (Jeffrey Markowitz/Sygma via Getty Images)

Californians first sent Feinstein to Washington in 1992. During her time in the Senate, the former San Francisco mayor helped pass the 1994 assault weapons ban and, later, oversaw the public release of a landmark report on torture of suspected terrorists following 9/11. She is also responsible for the protection of huge swaths of the Southern California desert from development.

Feinstein easily won reelection in 2018, though by a smaller margin than in previous races. And as much as Feinstein is a revered figure, reverence has turned into impatience in recent years, especially as a younger, more diverse generation of Californians looks to make its mark on the national stage.

Accordingly, a poll from the Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies finds that 40% of Californians want her to resign immediately.

At the same time, plenty of Californians continue to support her. “A survey is of limited value and doesn’t deserve the weight you gave it,” one Pasadena resident complained in a letter to the Los Angeles Times.

Detractors in the House

Ro Khanna.
Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images)

Normally, junior Democrats would be hesitant to call out a party elder. But that has not been the case with Feinstein. While many of her Senate colleagues — most of whom are also long in the tooth — remain on her side, younger Democrats in the House have been less reticent in voicing their criticisms.

Rep. Ro Khanna of California was the first House member to call on Feinstein to step down before her term concludes in 2025. He has since been joined by four colleagues, including, most recently, Rep. Ritchie Torres of New York.

“I think if you’re a member, and you become a shadow of your former self, you should resign,” Torres said last week.

Support from Hillary Clinton — and Nancy Pelosi

Feinstein has received support from Hillary Clinton, who pointed out last week that if Feinstein steps down, Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee will lack the majority required to confirm judges nominated by President Biden.

“Here’s the dilemma: The Republicans will not agree to add someone else to the Judiciary Committee if she retires,” Clinton said.

Hillary Clinton and Dianne Feinstein clasp each others' hands in front of an American flag.
Then-Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and Feinstein during a fundraiser in 2016 in San Francisco. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)

Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has also dispatched her daughter Nancy Corinne Prowda to serve as a kind of special aide to the ailing Senator.

Pelosi is a supporter of Rep. Adam Schiff, one of three House Democrats running to replace Feinstein. If she were to retire early, however, California Gov. Gavin Newsom would be expected to act on his promise to appoint a Black woman to the vacated seat.

Although that Newsom-picked senator would only serve for a few months before having to defend the seat in 2024, incumbency has a power of its own, and it could be difficult for a candidate like Schiff to justify a primary race against the Senate’s lone Black woman.

Unlikely to listen

Dianne Feinstein.
Feinstein on May 18. (Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

So far, Feinstein has shown no signs that she is actually considering early retirement.

Her biographer Jerry Roberts recently told the Los Angeles Times that Feinstein was unlikely to bow to public pressure after so many decades of bucking expectations.

“Independence is probably Feinstein's most salient character trait,” Roberts said. “But also a belief in herself to the point of stubbornness, where nobody is going to tell her what she can or cannot do. She has tremendous belief and confidence in her own strength and her own ability. And in fact, the best way to get her to do something is to tell her that she can't.”