Feinstein vows to return but doesn't say when, leaving Senate in limbo

·7 min read
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Washington — Will she or won't she be back? That's the question swirling around the Capitol as lawmakers ponder 89-year-old Sen. Dianne Feinstein's potential return this month amid questions about her health.

The longest-serving female senator has not cast a vote since mid-February after her hospitalization for shingles.

"I hope, just as she does, that she can come back as soon as possible," fellow Democratic Sen. Alex Padilla of California told CBS News.

The junior senator, who once served as a field representative for Feinstein, keeps in contact with his former boss-turned-colleague through messages and calls while she recuperates at her Northern California home.

"She appreciates the check-ins," Padilla said. "She's eager to get back and just waiting for the doctors to clear her to travel, frustrated that the recovery is taking longer than expected."

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer told reporters Wednesday he recently spoke with Feinstein and is "hopeful" the California Democrat could return to the Senate next week. Her office confirmed the call but cautioned that no date has been set for her to come back.

"Senator Feinstein continues to make progress in her recovery. However, we don't have a timeline yet for her return to Washington, which is dependent on her medical team saying it is safe to travel," a spokesperson  said.

Feinstein's absence has ignited a political firestorm on both sides of the aisle. This week GOP presidential candidate Nikki Haley, a proponent of mental competency tests and congressional term limits, joined liberal Democrats in demanding Feinstein's ouster, although her argument was one that questioned Feinstein's mental fitness, rather than her physical fitness.

"I agree with several congressional Democrats who say Feinstein should resign immediately and let someone else who is able to do the job take over," Haley wrote in an op-ed. "At 89 years old, she is a prime example of why we need mental competency tests for politicians.

The New York Times editorial board also weighed in Friday, calling on Feinstein to step down if she can't fulfill her obligations to the Senate and her 39 million constituents: "If she cannot fulfill her obligations to the Senate and to her constituents, she should resign and turn over her responsibilities to an appointed successor. If she is unable to reach that decision on her own, Mr. Schumer, the majority leader, and other Democratic senators should make it clear to her and the public how important it is that she do so."

Bay Area Rep. Ro Khanna has led the push for Feinstein's resignation, suggesting the senator's prolonged leave is costing Democrats votes on legislation and judicial nominees. Several "Squad" progressives have sided with Khanna, including New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

"Her refusal to either retire or show up is causing great harm to the Judiciary," Ocasio-Cortez posted this week on the private social media app, BlueSky.

Feinstein issued a lengthy rebuttal Thursday dismissing claims that absence has impacted the pace of judicial nominations.

"The Senate continues to swiftly confirm highly qualified individuals to the federal judiciary, including seven more judicial nominees who were confirmed this week," Feinstein said in a written statement her office released. "There has been no slowdown."

Twenty-one district and circuit nominees have been confirmed by the Senate, 19 nominees have advanced out of the Senate Judiciary Committee and four are awaiting a vote in committee, according to Feinstein's office.

"I'm confident that when I return to the Senate, we will be able to move the remaining qualified nominees out of committee quickly and to the Senate floor for a vote," Feinstein said in the statement.

Last month she requested a temporary replacement on the panel but it was blocked by Senate Republicans.

"I think that some people made some statements not realizing that the Republicans were never going to cooperate with the committee," said Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi. "So, why were they, why were these other people saying she should resign? That's up to the senator."

Pelosi hailed Feinstein as an "icon" and told CBS News "it's just a matter of when" she may return to the Capitol.

"With all due respect to all of the people who have served, and we owe them respect for when they are sick, for them to get well and to take the time to do it. That should apply to her as well as to all the others," said the San Francisco Democrat.

Feinstein announced in February she would not seek reelection at the end of her current term in 2024. If she stepped down before then, California Governor Gavin Newsom would appoint her replacement.

California Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis declined to say if she has had any conversations with Newsom about the possibility but told CBS News she does not want the position if a temporary vacancy arises.

"I think first and foremost the governor is deeply respectful of Senator Feinstein and I am sure is in contact with her team and everyone is very much at this point expecting and hoping that the senator will return to Washington," said Kounalakis, who called Feinstein a "dear friend".

In March 2021, Newsom pledged to nominate a Black woman if Feinstein resigned.

"It's her decision, that's the bottom line," said veteran Rep. Maxine Waters, of Los Angeles. "If she steps down, he has made that commitment and I'm supporting Barbara Lee right now, who is running for the United States Senate, and I would suggest he appoint her."

Lee, a Bay Area Democrat, announced her Senate candidacy earlier this year and has tried to distance herself from calls by her campaign co-chair, Rep. Khanna, for Feinstein to resign.

"The congresswoman's primary concern is for Senator Feinstein's health, and she is wishing the senator a full recovery," a Lee campaign spokesperson said.

Democratic primary opponents Reps. Adam Schiff and Katie Porter also wished Feinstein well and have not spoken with her or her team.

"I'm mostly concerned about her well being and hope she comes back soon," Schiff said.

Porter told CBS News "voters will decide for themselves what to make of calls for Senator Feinstein's resignation" in next year's Senate race.

"My campaign is going to continue all the way to Election Day," Porter said. "I do think Senator Feinstein's absence, as with other situations that we've had, whether it's someone having a child, whether it's someone needing mental health care, all raise this larger question, structurally, institutionally, are we as a Congress able to adapt and accommodate foreseeable things?"

A dominant force for decades in Golden State politics, Feinstein was elected to the Senate in 1992 during the "year of the woman" after serving as mayor of San Francisco. While members of the California delegation remain largely deferential to the four-term Senator, some lawmakers are growing anxious as major votes approach in the narrowly divided Congress.

"I hope she gets better very quickly and gets back in the Senate because we've got to get those judges confirmed," Los Angeles Mayor and former Congresswoman Karen Bass told CBS News.

Rep. Judy Chu, of Southern California, said she is "very concerned" about the confirmation of Labor Secretary nominee Julie Su. Su's nomination cleared the Senate HELP committee last month but several Democrats have not committed to supporting her.

"That's one where I know every level vote will count," Chu said. "That's just one of many decisions though that are going to be taking place that need her vote on the floor."

Congress also faces an end of the month deadline to reach a deal on a debt limit increase before the U.S Treasury is projected to reach default in early June.

"Our expectation as House Democrats is that every senator is going to need to participate as we stave off House Republican attempts to get closer to default," said House Democratic Caucus Chair Rep. Pete Aguilar.. "So I look forward to her coming back and I look forward to her service."

Ellis Kim contributed to this report. 

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