What the 6 oldest senators have said about aging American leaders and working in their 80s

·9 min read
A collage featuring Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California; Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa; Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont; and Republican Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama
Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California; Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa; Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont; and Republican Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama.Getty Images
  • The six oldest senators have spent a combined two-plus centuries serving in Congress.

  • They have vastly different views on their own longevity in public life.

  • Three are retiring, two haven't announced 2024 plans, and one — Chuck Grassley — is running for term No. 8.

The six oldest US senators, who have spent a combined two-plus centuries serving in Congress, have vastly different views on their own longevity in public life.

Sens. Dianne Feinstein, 89, Chuck Grassley, 88, Richard Shelby, 88, Jim Inhofe, 87, Patrick Leahy, 82, and Bernie Sanders, 80, are part of the reason why the Senate's average age this Congress is 64.3, the oldest in the chamber's history, according to the Senate Historical Office.

At the same time that more than half of Americans say they support an age limit for elected officials, Grassley says he is running this year for an eighth Senate term. Feinstein, who has faced questions about her mental acuity, hasn't said when — or if — she plans to retire. Her term ends in January 2025, when she'd be 91.

Shelby, Inhofe, and Leahy are all retiring this year. Meanwhile, Sanders hasn't ruled out another presidential bid.

In a birthday phone call to Grassley, Sen. Tom Carper, 75, told him he doesn't know what he'll be doing when he's 88 but he "sure as heck" won't be running for re-election.

"I said, 'I just hope I know who I am and where I am,'" Carper told Insider. "He said, 'Tom, I hope you do, too.'"

Aging isn't necessarily a detriment on Capitol Hill, said Trent Lott, a Mississippi Republican who served 30-plus years in Congress including a stint as Senate majority leader. It can also be an advantage, he told Insider.

"There's wisdom that comes with age and service and time. And I think it's good that we have a balance between older experienced senators and congressmen and young congressmen and senators with a lot of energy and vigor," Lott said in an interview. "But you do need to think about what is the time to move on."

Here's what the oldest senators are saying about age and leadership:

Dianne Feinstein

Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, wearing her glasses and bright blue blazer, speaks during the Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing for US Supreme Court nominee Judge Ketanji Brown, in the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill March 21, 2022 in Washington, DC.
Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California speaks during the Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing for US Supreme Court nominee Judge Ketanji Brown, in the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill March 21, 2022 in Washington, DC.Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

Feinstein's mental acuity has been under scrutiny, with unnamed lawmakers and former staffers notably raising questions in interviews with the San Francisco Chronicle about her memory lapses and reliance on her staff.

When Insider asked the Senate's oldest member whether age affects her leadership, the California Democrat said it doesn't.

"I've been very lucky, as a matter of fact, in that respect, and I don't feel affected by age," she said in June. "Of course, I've got this big commute back and forth. That's hard. Maybe I do a little less commuting. That's how I see it."

In April, Insider asked Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer whether he had confidence in her ability to serve.

He declined to say.

"I've had a good number of discussions with Senator Feinstein, but I'm keeping them to myself," Schumer said.

Feinstein sometimes forgot questions posed to her in an interview published by The Cut in June, and a former staffer defended her by saying a "diminished" Feinstein was better than a junior senator.

Feinstein began serving in the Senate in 1992. She stepped down in 2021 as top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee after progressives criticized her for praising then-Chairman Lindsey Graham's handling of Supreme Court confirmation hearings for now-Justice Amy Coney Barrett.

Feinstein filed paperwork with the Federal Election Commission to run in the 2024 election, although a spokesperson told SFGATE that the paperwork is necessary to keep her campaign account active and doesn't speak to her plans.

Feinstein hasn't indicated whether she intends to run again. If she does and wins, Feinstein would be 97 at the end of a term that concluded in 2031.

Chuck Grassley

Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, who appears to be slightly hunched while sporting glasses, a dark suit jacket, and a bright red tie, speaks to a reporter while walking through the Senate subway on Capitol Hill.
Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa talks with reporters as he walks through the Senate subway on his way to a lunch meeting with Senate Republicans at the U.S. Capitol on June 14, 2022 in Washington, DC.Drew Angerer/Getty Images

The Iowa Republican, who typically provides folksy-sounding replies whether discussing global tax rates, polarizing judicial nominees, or the state of his soybean crops, bristled when Insider brought up his advancing age.

"I enjoy serving the people of Iowa," the 88-year-old lawmaker and longest-serving senator in Hawkeye State history, told Insider following a press conference where he railed against drug-fueled crimes he blamed on liberal Democrats.

In September, Grassley announced that he was running for an eighth term, which would mean he would be 95 when that legislative tour ends in 2029.

Only four senators in US history have served into their 90s, with one — Strom Thurmond of South Carolina — staying in office till the age 100. Thurmond died six months after retiring.

Richard Shelby

Republican Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, his lips pursed, walks through a crowd of reporters as he arrives at the Capitol for a vote on January 31, 2022 in Washington, DC.
Republican Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama talks to reporters as he arrives at the Capitol for a vote on January 31, 2022 in Washington, DC.Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The six-term Alabama Republican said he's happy with his decision to retire at the end of his term after 44 years in Congress — eight in the House and 36 in the Senate.

"I was 44 when I came to the House, so I had a good run," he told Insider in June, adding that he enjoyed chairing committees on Rules, Banking, and Appropriations.

"But I, myself, know that there's a season for all of us," he said. "And I thought it was time to move on, go home" and make way for another generation.

Shelby said, "some people stay too long. Some don't stay long enough ... But it's up to them and the voters."

While he's been "blessed with good health," he said, "I hope I will for a long time, but not forever."

Half-a-dozen six-year terms isn't a record, he said, but it's a long time.

Shelby says he doesn't know what he'll do next, though he knows he won't be practicing law after so many years.

"Maybe something in the community, not in politics," he said.

Jim Inhofe

Republican Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma gives opening remarks at the confirmation hearing for Secretary of Defense nominee retired Army Gen. Lloyd Austin before the Senate Armed Services Committee at the US Capitol on January 19, 2021 in Washington, DC.
Republican Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma gives opening remarks at the confirmation hearing for Secretary of Defense nominee retired Army Gen. Lloyd Austin before the Senate Armed Services Committee at the US Capitol on January 19, 2021 in Washington, DC.Greg Nash-Pool/Getty Images

The Oklahoma Republican, who was re-elected in 2020 for a sixth term, announced in February that he was retiring at the end of this year.

"We're at the point now where my wife and I have been married for 63 years and we have been blessed with reasonably good health and we want to enjoy our later years together," the six-term lawmaker said of his decision to leave legislating behind.

When asked what keeps him going now that retirement is in plain sight, Inhofe cracked a smile.

"Well, since it's all over January 3, I'm ready," he told Insider.

Patrick Leahy

Mask-clad Democratic Sen. Pat Leahy of Vermont is wheeled out of the Senate chamber during the weekend "vote-a-rama" on the Inflation Reduct Act at the US Capitol August 7, 2022 in Washington, DC.
Democratic Sen. Pat Leahy of Vermont exits the Senate chamber during amendment votes, also called the "vote-a-rama", on the Inflation Reduction Act at the US Capitol August 7, 2022 in Washington, DC.Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Leahy, currently the Senate's longest-serving member, announced he would not seek a ninth term this year, saying it was time to "pass the torch" to the next generation.

The Vermont Democrat is the last of the so-called Watergate babies, Democrats who were first elected to Congress in 1974 after former President Richard Nixon's resignation.

"It is time to pass the torch to the next Vermonter and carry on this work for our great state," he said in November. "It's time to come home."

As the Senate's president pro tempore, Leahy is third in line for the presidency. He had two surgeries recently that kept him from the chamber after fracturing a hip during a fall at his house in McLean, Virginia. He returned to the Senate in a wheelchair — decorated with a Batman sticker for his favorite superhero.

Leahy is the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. He is the senior-most member of the Senate Judiciary Committee and of the Senate Agriculture Committee.

Bernie Sanders

Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, sporting glasses and a dark suit jacket, speaks at a campaign rally for Michigan Democratic Reps. Andy Levin and Rashida Tlaib on July 29, 2022 in Pontiac, Michigan.
Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont speaks at a campaign rally for Michigan Democratic Reps. Andy Levin and Rashida Tlaib on July 29, 2022 in Pontiac, Michigan.Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

An Insider journalist asked Sanders about America's aging leaders. The Vermont independent interrupted him with a classic Sanders rant.

"Really!" Sanders interjected.

"Why don't you work on a story about America's oligarchy?" he said, reiterating a theme he's been hammering for decades. "Here you have an oligarchy where two people own more wealth than the bottom half of American society. Where billionaires are buying elections. The issue facing America is not age. It is the power of a handful of billionaires who to a significant degree, control the economic and political life of the country."

Sanders, now in his third Senate term after 16 years in the House, is the longest-serving independent member of Congress. He is up for re-election in 2024 and hasn't said if he plans to retire from the Senate.

The two-time Democratic presidential candidate has described the likelihood of a third presidential run as "very, very slim" and he has said he won't challenge President Joe Biden in a 2024 primary.

But Sanders hasn't ruled out another run in the event of a 2024 open Democratic presidential primary, according to a top Sanders advisor's memo that was shared with The Washington Post in April. Sanders would be 83 by Inauguration Day 2025 were he to win the White House.

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