Feinstein, facing calls to resign, vows to return to Senate but asks to step away from committee

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) speaks to reporters before entering the Senate Chamber at the U.S. Capitol on Feb. 14.
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Weeks after announcing she had been diagnosed with shingles, Sen. Dianne Feinstein's extended absence from the Senate has left Democrats in a tight spot given the party's slim majority in the chamber, spurring some high-profile calls for her resignation.

Without Feinstein, who at 89 is the oldest sitting senator, the confirmation of President Biden's judicial and administrative nominees has been complicated.

Late Wednesday, Feinstein's office released a statement acknowledging the delays at the Judiciary Committee and announcing that she has asked Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer "to allow another Democratic senator to temporarily serve until I’m able to resume my committee work.”

Feinstein, the statement said, intended to return to Washington in March after being diagnosed with shingles. But she has been delayed "due to continued complications related to my diagnosis." She did not offer more specifics about her health.

“I intend to return as soon as possible once my medical team advises that it’s safe for me to travel. In the meantime, I remain committed to the job and will continue to work from home in San Francisco," the statement read.

As the calls for her to step aside mounted from some corners of the Democratic Party, Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Fremont) joined the fray Wednesday.

"It’s time for @SenFeinstein to resign," Khanna tweeted. "We need to put the country ahead of personal loyalty. While she has had a lifetime of public service, it is obvious she can no longer fulfill her duties. Not speaking out undermines our credibility as elected representatives of the people."

Khanna is co-chair of the Senate campaign of Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Oakland), who is running to succeed Feinstein at the end of her term and is a possible pick of Gov. Gavin Newsom if he keeps his promise to appoint a Black woman to the seat if Feinstein retires early. But he could face criticism because such an appointment could be viewed as giving Lee an edge in the Senate race.

After being briefly hospitalized in San Francisco in February, Feinstein had said she hoped to be back in Washington by late March, but she remains at home in recovery. Feinstein is working while she recuperates, her spokesperson Adam Russell told the San Francisco Chronicle, but she cannot vote without being on the Senate floor or in committee.

In an email to The Times, Russell said there is no "update yet on her return" to the Capitol.

Her absence has disrupted the work of the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee, which holds confirmation hearings for federal judges and advances its recommendations to the full Senate. Without Feinstein, the committee is split evenly with 10 Democrats and 10 Republicans.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Richard J. Durbin told CNN that Feinstein’s absence has stalled the panel's push to confirm Biden's nominees.

“I can’t consider nominees in these circumstances because a tie vote is a losing vote in committee,” Durbin said.

The committee's last vote on a nominee was Feb. 16.

In the full Senate, Feinstein has been one of two Democrats out because of an illness, wiping out the party's 51-49 majority on the floor. Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.) checked into Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in February to receive treatment for clinical depression, which his chief of staff said had grown more severe as he faced challenges recovering from a life-threatening stroke in 2022. Fetterman was discharged after six weeks of inpatient treatment and is expected to return to the Capitol next week.

The absence of both has forced Vice President Kamala Harris to cast three tie-breaking votes in her role as president of the Senate so far this year.

The full Senate last confirmed a judicial nominee March 22, though no tiebreaker was needed on the 53-43 vote.

Feinstein has not participated in 58 Senate votes since Feb. 27, according to the Senate’s roll call votes.

Concerns over the missed votes and Feinstein's health have led to renewed calls for her resignation, which have dogged the aging senator — especially from the progressive wing of the Democratic Party — in recent years.

Jon Lovett, former speechwriter for President Obama, said on his podcast, “Pod Save America,” that Feinstein should resign, pointing in part to Durbin’s comments on the difficulties the party faces with confirming judicial nominees.

It is sad that Feinstein has shingles and "obviously not her fault," Lovett said, “but because she is not in the Judiciary Committee, Durbin has said that it has made it basically impossible to move a lot of these lower court nominees to the Senate for a vote, which means that Dianne Feinstein, who should not be in the Senate, is now preventing us from being able to confirm judges.”

He criticized Feinstein's circle, saying that what her people "are doing, allowing, being part of this farce of having a lack of a senator in such an important job, is really wrong."

“And Dianne Feinstein should no longer be in the Senate," he said. "She has to resign, and more people should be calling on her to resign.”

Russell, Feinstein's spokesperson, declined to comment on Durbin's and Lovett's remarks.

Feinstein has faced growing health challenges in recent years, including questions about whether she was up for the mental rigor of high-profile positions. Feinstein said she plans to fulfill her term, which ends in early 2025. She will retire at the end of the term, she said.

The Senate has been on a recess since March 31 and will return on April 17.

Sarah D. Wire contributed to this report.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.