Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday that Republicans won’t allow Democrats to temporarily replace California Sen. Dianne Feinstein on the Senate Judiciary Committee, arguing that they only want a stand-in to push through the most partisan judges.
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.”
Feinstein, 89, has been absent from the Senate since February, 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. Amid some calls for her resignation, the California senator issued a statement last week instead asking to be temporarily replaced on the Judiciary panel. But Democrats would need Republican support to do that, and McConnell made clear that will not happen.
Feinstein’s absence matters for Democrats because they have a one-seat majority on the committee, so they can only move nominees to the Senate floor that have bipartisan support.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said he will go to the Senate floor Tuesday afternoon and ask for unanimous consent to appoint a temporary substitute. But it is likely to be blocked, and it is unclear if Democrats would hold a roll call vote knowing that it would be rejected.
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.”
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 also 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.
Iowa Sen. Chuck 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 that “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.”