WASHINGTON – Republicans blocked a Democratic request to temporarily replace California Sen. Dianne Feinstein on the Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday, leaving Democrats with few options for moving some of President Joe Biden's stalled judicial nominees.
South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, objected to a resolution offered by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer that would have allowed another senator to take Feinstein's place on the panel while the Democrat recuperates from a case of shingles. Republicans have argued that Democrats only want a stand-in to push through the most partisan judges, noting that many of Biden’s nominees have bipartisan support and can move to the Senate floor for a vote.
As he objected, Graham said Democrats were trying to “change the numbers on the committee in a way that I think would be harmful to Senate, and to pass out a handful of judges that I think should never be on the bench."
Democrats could still hold a roll call vote on the request. But with what appears to be unified GOP opposition to the move, it would likely be rejected.
Feinstein, 89, made the unusual request last week after pressure from Democrats who are concerned about the judicial nominees and amid some calls for her resignation. She has been absent from the Senate since February and has given no date for a return, creating a headache for Democrats who are hoping to use their majority to confirm as many of President Joe Biden’s judicial nominees as possible.
Ahead of the vote, Schumer said the replacement for Feinstein would be Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin, a lawyer and third-term senator from Maryland. Schumer would not answer questions about whether he thinks Feinstein should consider resigning, but said he had spoken to Feinstein and “she and I are both very hopeful that she will return soon.”
Earlier Tuesday, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell called the effort to place a substitute on the panel as Feinstein recovers from a case of shingles “an extremely unusual” request with no known precedent.
“Let’s be clear,” said McConnell in remarks on the Senate floor. “Senate Republicans will not take part in sidelining a temporarily absent colleague off a committee just so Democrats can force through their very worst nominees.”
McConnell’s comments came after several Republican senators said on Monday that they wouldn’t support the Democratic plan — both because they don’t want to help Democrats confirm liberal judges and because they don’t think senators should try to push out one of their own.
Republican Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Chuck Grassley of Iowa said they think Democrats are pressuring Feinstein unfairly.
Collins said that she and Feinstein are good friends, and she thinks there has been a “concerted campaign” to push her off the judiciary committee. “I will have no part of that,” Collins said.
Feinstein has come under increasing pressure to resign or step down from her duties. While she has defended her effectiveness, she has faced questions in recent years about her cognitive health and memory, and has appeared increasingly frail.
In 2020, she said she would not serve as the top Democrat on the judiciary panel after criticism from liberals about her handling of Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation. Earlier this year, she said she would not serve as the Senate president pro tempore, or the most senior member of the majority party, even though she was in line to do so. The president pro tempore opens the Senate every day and holds other ceremonial duties.
Grassley, a longtime member of the panel who is the same age as Feinstein, chastised Democrats for denying Feinstein the opportunity to become chairman of the committee and trying to force her out of office “because she’s old.”
“I don’t intend to give credence to that sort of anti-human treatment,” Grassley said.
If Feinstein were to resign immediately, the process would be much easier for Democrats, since California Gov. Gavin Newsom would appoint a replacement. The Senate regularly approves committee assignments for new senators after their predecessors have resigned or died. But a temporary replacement due to illness is a rare, if not unprecedented, request.
Some Democrats have called for her full resignation. Her statement asking for a temporary substitute came shortly after Democratic Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., called on her to resign from the Senate, saying it is “unacceptable” for her to miss votes to confirm judges who could be weighing in on abortion rights, a key Democratic priority.
Another member of the California delegation, Democratic Rep. Pete Aguilar, said Tuesday that Feinstein is “a legend in California politics and a legend in the Senate chamber” but that her vote will be needed as Congress tries to figure out how to raise the debt ceiling this year.
“I will say that our expectation as House Democrats is that every senator is going to need to participate," he said, adding that "she should get to choose that timeline.”
Asked if Feinstein should resign, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin said Monday, “I’m not going to push her into any other decision.” Durbin had previously expressed frustration about his committee’s stalled nominees.
Durbin appealed to his Republican colleagues to “show a little kindness and caring for their colleague.”
If the Senate votes to replace her on the panel, “I think we can take care of this issue, do it very quickly,” Durbin said. “I hope we can find 10 Republicans who will join us in that effort.”
Associated Press writer Farnoush Amiri contributed to this report.