Chuck Schumer refused to defend Sen. Dianne Feinstein over calls from progressive groups for her removal as top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, with the Senate minority leader divulging he had a “long and serious talk” recently with the California senator.
Senate Democrats are grappling with how to handle Feinstein’s future role on the panel. Liberal groups say Feinstein was far too accommodating to Republicans during last week’s confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett. And while Democrats tread carefully in public on Tuesday, refusing to criticize the 87-year-old Feinstein — the first woman to serve as ranking member on Judiciary — her loudest supporters were actually Republicans.
Democrats mostly refused to comment on the controversy, with some praising Feinstein’s long record of service but few touting her performance last week. The Barrett proceedings ended with Feinstein praising Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and then hugging him. She called the Barrett hearings “one of the best sets of hearings that I’ve participated in,” a comment that drew waves of angry criticism from the left.
NARAL, Demand Justice and an array of liberal organizations dinged Feinstein for being far too deferential to Barrett, claiming she essentially helped Senate Republicans stack the Supreme Court with another ideologue who will solidify the conservative majority on the high court for years to come. NARAL Pro-Choice America president Ilyse Hogue said Feinstein “offered an appearance of credibility to the proceedings that is wildly out of step with the American people.”
In a brief interview, Feinstein said she had “no comment” about the groups calling for her to step down. Feinstein waved away a question about whether she would run again for the top Democratic slot on the Judiciary Committee during the next Congress.
The normally voluble Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who could be in line for the position if Feinstein stepped down, was uncharacteristically terse about calls for her to be demoted.
“You keep asking me that question. I’m not going to answer it,” he said on Tuesday.
The Democratic Party is highly unlikely to overtly force Feinstein to step down. Several Democratic sources said that if she did leave the top slot of the Judiciary Committee it would be of her own accord.
And in response to questions about whether Feinstein should be replaced atop the panel, Schumer was tight-lipped about Feinstein.
“I’ve had a long and serious talk with Sen. Feinstein,” Schumer said on Tuesday. “That’s all I’m going to say about it right now.
Many other Democrats also declined to comment on Feinstein, from progressive Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) to vice presidential nominee Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.). Those that did speak out said the decision on Feinstein’s future isn’t up to them.
“She is the ranking member, and so far as I know standing here right now, she’ll continue to be ranking member,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), a member of the Judiciary Committee. “Sen. Schumer is the leader of our caucus and he’s the one who decides. She has contributed through her public service and I value her leadership and friendship.”
“Sen. Feinstein has a long record of fighting for gender equality and reproductive rights, and [she] has led the minority on the committee well,” added Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), who also serves on the Judiciary Committee. When asked whether Feinstein should be replaced atop the panel, Coons demurred: “I don’t think that’s for me to say.”
Feinstein was the first Senate Democrat to endorse Joe Biden, even before he got in the race to be president. Andrew Bates, a spokesman for Biden, said: "Vice President Biden's appreciation for her support is only exceeded by his respect and admiration for her strong record of public service to the people of California and the nation.”
Feinstein still enjoys close relationships in the GOP and Republicans emerged this week as Feinstein’s most outspoken advocates. They claim the anger from the left at Feinstein is misguided and shows that Democrats’ attacks on Barrett’s conduct and qualifications during the hearing failed to land.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) lamented that it “would be a real shame if they run her off.”
“She’s such an outstanding legislator, it’s totally unjustified,” said fellow octogenarian Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), a former Judiciary Committee chairman. “She’s only three months older than I am, and I haven’t announced I’m not running for reelection.”
“I’m not sure it would be terribly helpful to Dianne if I said something nice about her,” acknowledged Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who serves on the Judiciary Committee. “The left-wing attacks on Sen. Feinstein are a product of the frustration on the far left that their attacks [on Barrett] aren’t working and their arguments aren’t resonating.”
Feinstein would take over as chair of the Judiciary panel in the next Congress if Democrats win the majority on Election Day, which looks increasingly possible. Feinstein has not stated whether she will fight her critics and try to keep her spot or whether she will give up the role. After Durbin, who would be unlikely to lead the panel if he stays on as whip, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) is next in seniority.
“Sen. Feinstein is focused right now on the Barrett nomination and the upcoming election,” the California Democrat’s office said in a statement. “Decisions on the next Congress will be made after Nov. 3.”
There is precedent for replacing committee chairs who no longer are up to the job or become incapacitated due to health issues. The late Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) was replaced as the chairman of the Armed Services Committee during the late 1990s. And in 2008, the late Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) voluntarily gave up his role as Appropriations Committee chairman. Most recently, Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) retired in 2018 after questions were raised about his fitness to wield the gavel at the Appropriations Committee.
The seniority system in Congress protects veteran members from being pushed aside by more junior rivals who may have a higher profile, and it also provides a powerful tool to small states or poor districts to get federal attention. Yet the other side of the coin is that it can take decades to climb the committee ladder, meaning lawmakers may not be as vital as they once were when they finally get to the cherished panel post.
But for Feinstein, this month's controversy centers on her throwback attitude of bipartisan comity and buddying up to Graham, an embattled incumbent who Democrats see as rushing the Supreme Court hearings and shifting the high court away from them for a generation.
“I hate the fact that saying something nice about me about the way I conducted the hearing has gotten to the point now that people would drive you out of office,” Graham lamented in an interview. “We’re losing our way here."
Andrew Desiderio contributed to this report.