California Democrat Senator Dianne Feinstein Returns to Senate After Monthslong Absence

Democrat California Senator Dianne Feinstein returned to the Senate Wednesday after a two-and-a-half-month absence due to illness, which gives the majority of Democrats a needed final vote as they try to raise the nation’s debt ceiling in the coming weeks and confirm President Joe Biden’s nominees. 

Looking frail and noticeably thinner, Feinstein is using a wheelchair to move around the Capitol as she continues to recover from shingles. The senator missed the Senate’s first vote on Wednesday a.m. but arrived outside the Senate in a car for an afternoon vote. She was assisted into the wheelchair by aides and greeted by Chuck Schumer, Senate Majority Leader, with a pat on the back and a handshake. 

Feinstein said in a statement that she was continuing to recover from side effects from the shingles virus and would be working on a reduced schedule. 

“My doctors have advised me to work a lighter schedule as I return to the Senate,” said Feinstein in a statement. “I’m hopeful those issues will subside as I continue to recover.”

Feinstein’s return after being away ten weeks from the Senate gives Democrats a larger cushion as they navigate the party’s 51-49 majority. The senator asked Schumer to temporarily replace her on the Senate Judiciary Committee, where President Biden’s judicial nominations have been stuck without a tie-breaking vote. However, Republicans blocked her request last month, giving Dems few options to move the nominees forward, along with essential bills, including a possible debt package, unless she resigned or returned. 

It remains unclear if Feinstein will be present for every critical vote. Her office said she was initially diagnosed on February 26 with shingles and was hospitalized briefly. The senator is still experiencing side effects, including balance and vision impairments. 

Feinstein’s illness came as she had already grown frailer in recent years

The illness came after Senator Feinstein had grown frailer in recent years and appeared disoriented and confused when talking to reporters in the Capitol. However, she has defended her effectiveness.

Feinstein’s statement said the “most pressing” issue facing the Senate is to lift the debt ceiling and avoid default. “I also look forward to resuming my work on the Judiciary Committee considering the president’s judicial nominees,” the senator said.

Feinstein made the unusual move to ask to be temporarily replaced on the panel after pressure from Dems concerned about the judicial nominees amid some calls for her resignation. Feinstein’s office hadn’t given a date for her return, which created a headache for Dems who are hoping to use their majority to confirm President Biden’s judicial nominees as soon as possible. 

GOP members balked and said they would not help the Democrats to confirm nominees who could not move forward without bipartisan support. Senator Schumer then declined to hold a vote on Feinstein’s request after it was made clear it wouldn’t pass. 

Feinstein had asked for a replacement until Democrat Representative Ro Khanna of California called on her to resign from the Senate, saying it was “unacceptable” for Sen. Feinstein to miss any votes to confirm judges who would be asked to possibly weigh in on abortion rights, which remains a critical Democrat priority. 

Senator Feinstein gradually stepped back from several senior positions in recent years. In 2020, she said she wouldn’t serve as the top Democrat on the Judiciary panel following criticism from liberals about her handling of the confirmation of Justice Amy Coney Barrett. Earlier in the year, she said she wouldn’t serve as Senate president pro tempore, the more senior member of the majority party, although she was lined up to do so. The president pro tempore holds ceremonial duties and opens the Senate every day.