Hillary Clinton argued that Sen. Dianne Feinstein — the 89-year-old California Democrat who has refused to resign despite worries about her health and ability to legislate — should remain in the Senate if Democrats want to continue confirming President Biden’s judicial nominees.
Speaking Monday at the Chicago Humanities Festival, the former presidential nominee and U.S. senator called Feinstein “a remarkable and very effective leader.” But Clinton, who described Feinstein as her friend, also made a practical argument for Feinstein staying in office.
Why Feinstein is facing pressure to resign
Democrats have been increasingly alarmed by Feinstein’s absences from Capitol Hill, with some going as far as to call for her resignation so that California Gov. Gavin Newsom can appoint a replacement.
Feinstein is a member of the powerful Judiciary Committee, and when she was sidelined for three months as she recovered from shingles earlier this year, the committee was evenly split between Republicans and Democrats. As a result, committee Democrats were unable to confirm most of President Biden’s judicial nominees. Her absence also undercut the committee’s ability to issue subpoenas investigating the numerous reports of Supreme Court corruption.
“Because Sen. Feinstein was absent, Republicans are passing legislation through the Senate, undermining the right of our residents to breathe clean air. And with a far-right judiciary targeting our human rights, we are unable to confirm judges. Sen. Feinstein must step down,” Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., tweeted late last month, before the senator returned to Washington.
Clinton’s case for Feinstein
Clinton, however, argued Feinstein stepping down would not make things any easier for Democrats.
“Here’s the dilemma: The Republicans will not agree to add someone else to the Judiciary Committee if she retires,” Clinton said.
“I want you to think about how crummy that is. I don’t know in her heart about whether she really would or wouldn’t, but right now, she can’t. Because if we’re going to get judges confirmed, which is one of the most important continuing obligations that we have, then we cannot afford to have her seat vacant.”
“If Republicans were to say and do the decent thing and say, well this woman was gravely ill, she had just lost her husband to cancer … of course, we will let you fill this position if she retires. But they won’t say that,” Clinton continued.
“So what are we supposed to do? All these people pushing her to retire: fine, we get no more judges? I don’t think that’s a good tradeoff.”
Is Clinton correct?
As Time’s Phillip Elliott has noted, senators are assigned their committees at the start of a new Congress, and any changes would in practice require 60 Senate votes. “That means 10 Republicans would have to allow Democrats to either send Feinstein’s replacement or another lawmaker into that role,” Elliott wrote.
It’s extremely unlikely that Republicans would go along with appointing another Democrat to the committee should Feinstein resign. When Senate Judiciary Chairman Dick Durban, D-Ill., floated the idea that Feinstein could be replaced while she was recuperating, the GOP swiftly shot it down.
“I don’t think Republicans are going to lift a finger in any way to get more liberal judges appointed, so whether she’s resigned or leaves temporarily from the Judiciary Committee, I think we will slow walk any process that makes it easier to appoint more liberal judges,” Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, said last month.
Ongoing concerns about Feinstein’s health
Feinstein returned to the Senate in a wheelchair on May 10. Her office confirmed last week that her health issues were more complicated than it had initially disclosed, saying she had dealt with encephalitis, a rare but potentially debilitating complication that causes inflammation of the brain, as well as Ramsay Hunt syndrome, which can cause paralysis and hearing loss.
In a conversation with reporters shortly after her return, Feinstein appeared confused when asked about her extended absence.
How age become a tricky issue for Democrats
The frustration with the Feinstein situation comes as Democrats grapple with the party’s leadership becoming what some critics say is a gerontocracy, with the 80-year-old Biden set to top the presidential ticket next year, the 72-year-old Chuck Schumer serving as Senate majority leader and the 83-year-old Nancy Pelosi only recently having stepped down as the party’s leader in the House.
During President Barack Obama’s second term, some liberals called on Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to resign so her replacement could be confirmed by the Democrat-controlled Senate before the 2016 election. Ginsburg, the oldest member of the court, instead remained on the bench until she died in September 2020, when Republicans controlled both the Senate and the White House.
President Donald Trump and GOP Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell moved swiftly to replace Ginsburg with Amy Coney Barrett, giving conservatives a 6-3 majority on the court. In 2022, Barrett joined with the other justices appointed by Republican presidents in repealing Roe v. Wade, a decision that allowed conservatives to outlaw abortion in much of the U.S.