After Senator Dianne Feinstein announced she had contracted shingles in early March, her staff maintained she planned to return to the Senate within a few weeks.
However, several Democrats close to her, along with high-ranking congressional aides, are growing concerned that she may never be able to return to Washington.
The 89-year-old California senator has been away from the Capitol for almost two months, including a stretch spent at the hospital before returning home to San Francisco to recuperate.
Three individuals who visited the senator in recent weeks or who have been briefed on her condition say her diagnosis seems to have taken a heavy toll on her. Other confidants, including a couple who have spoken to or seen the senator, maintained they remain hopefully the senator will be able to serve about the almost two years left of her term. However, neither individual, who spoke on Feinstein’s condition under anonymity, indicated they believed she would be able to do so from Washington.
In a Wednesday statement after the story first broke, Feinstein did not indicate an expected return date and said she has asked Democrat Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York to temporarily replace her on the Senate Judiciary Committee so the panel could process nominations, in an unusual move.
“I understand that my absence could delay the important work of the Judiciary Committee,” said Feinstein.
The Democrat from California said she was planning on returning to Washington “as soon as possible once my medical team advises that it’s safe for me to travel,” and emphasized that she would be working from home in San Francisco. “When I was first diagnosed with shingles, I expected to return by the end of the March work period. Unfortunately, my return to Washington has been delayed due to continued complications related to my diagnosis,” she said.
A spokesman for Senator Schumer released a statement shortly after saying he would “ask the Senate next week to allow another Democratic Senator to temporarily serve on the Judiciary Committee.” To replace Feinstein on the committee, Dems could either pass a resolution by a 60-vote threshold or seek unanimous consent, which would require all senators to support the move.
Senator Feinstein’s request for a temporary replacement on the judiciary panel is an indication that her absence has already forced her party to change how they conduct themselves in the Senate, where Dems cannot move President Joe Biden’s judicial choices ahead without her vote.
In California, the race to succeed Feinstein is in a temporary holding pattern due to the uncertainty about the senator’s future — along with consistent chatter about whether Democrat Governor Gavin Newsom could be forced to disrupt the contest by appointing a successor.
Feinstein remains an iconic Senate presence
Senator Feinstein, an iconic presence in the Democrat party, passed up the top spot on the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2020, amid growing speculation about her mental acuity, has kept news of her condition hushed. Her staff has been hesitant to discuss her health, even with other members of the delegation from California, according to six Democrats familiar with the discussions.
The delicate dynamic is one that is made more difficult by the Senate Democrats’ 51-vote majority. Speculation about her future ramped up higher after the recent departure of David Grannis, Feinstein’s chief of staff, who left for a new position on the Senate Intelligence Committee. Longtime aide on the Senate Intelligence Committee, James Sauls, has stepped into the role as chief of staff.
Feinstein’s illness has kept her from voting in the Judiciary panel to approve President Biden’s nominees for the federal bench, temporarily stalling the nominations. It is also being felt on the floor of the Senate. The California Dem has missed almost 60 votes since her mid-February shingles diagnosis.
Her long absence has put a strain on the Democrats’ 51-49 chamber majority, with Democrat Senator John Fetterman of Pennsylvania also absent for weeks while being treated for depression.
Vice President Kamala Harris has stepped in to break several ties to confirm judicial nominees on the floor, and committee action has been postponed on several nominations in her absence. Currently, there are 14 pending judicial nominees who have had hearings, but have not received a vote in committee.