Feinstein under the microscope for Kavanaugh hearing

Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinWhat's that you smell in the Supreme Court? New variant raises questions about air travel mandates Progressive groups urge Feinstein to back filibuster carve out for voting rights or resign MORE (D-Calif.) is under intense pressure heading into Judge Brett Kavanaugh's Supreme Court confirmation hearing.

His nomination puts the 85-year-old California senator, who is seeking reelection, at the center of one of the Senate’s most partisan fights of the year. If confirmed, Kavanaugh, 53, is expected to tilt the Supreme Court to the right for years by giving conservatives a fifth vote on a host of controversial issues.

The nationally televised hearing will be a high-profile test for Feinstein, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee who has taken fire from progressives worried that her collegial personality is out of touch with the environment of the Trump era.

Activists want her and other Democrats on the committee to use the days-long confirmation hearing, scheduled to start Tuesday morning, to hammer Kavanaugh on issues ranging from executive authority to women’s health care.

“If Sen. Feinstein doesn’t hold Brett Kavanaugh’s feet to the fire and hold Republicans' feet to the fire for the ram job that they’re trying to push here, it is to her detriment in a Senate race,” said Neil Sroka, a spokesman for Democracy for America, which endorsed state Sen. Kevin de León (D) in his race against Feinstein.

California has what’s known as a jungle primary, which allows the top two finishers from the primary to compete in the general election, regardless of party affiliation. De León is considered to be further to the left than Feinstein.

Liberal activists widely expect Feinstein to ultimately vote “no” on Kavanaugh, but they’re concerned that some Democrats are normalizing President TrumpDonald TrumpGOP grapples with chaotic Senate primary in Pennsylvania ​​Trump social media startup receives commitment of billion from unidentified 'diverse group' of investors Iran thinks it has the upper hand in Vienna — here's why it doesn't MORE by refusing to formally announce their opposition almost two months after Kavanaugh’s nomination.

Brian Fallon, a spokesman for Demand Justice and former aide for Senate Minority Leader Chuck SchumerChuck SchumerHospitals in underserved communities face huge cuts in reckless 'Build Back Better' plan GOP infighting takes stupid to a whole new level Progressive groups urge Schumer to prevent further cuts to T plan MORE (D-N.Y.), warned that committee Democrats cannot treat Kavanaugh’s nomination like “business as usual."

“The Republicans are playing for keeps here,” he said. “We need Dianne Feinstein and the other Democrats on the panel to respond accordingly.”

Feinstein has kept her strategy close to her vest in the lead-up to Kavanaugh’s hearing, but she highlighted three issues during a conference call with reporters on Friday: Roe v. Wade, guns and Kavanaugh’s views on executive power, including prosecuting or investigating a sitting president.

“These are just a few areas we expect to explore during next week’s hearing and we welcome you all to listen,” Feinstein said.

Despite being the ranking Democrat on the committee, Feinstein has remained tight-lipped about what she discussed with Kavanaugh during their hourlong meeting last month.

Spokespeople for Feinstein didn’t respond to a request for comment on how the senator is preparing for the hearing.

This is hardly the first time Feinstein has come under fire from her base.

Known for her old-school collegiality in an increasingly partisan Senate, Feinstein was booed during a town hall event in San Francisco last year when she said she didn’t support a single-payer health-care system. Attendees urged her to stand up more forcefully to the Trump administration.

She faced similar scrutiny during a fight over Trump’s pick to lead the CIA after she initially told reporters that she thought Gina Haspel had been a “good” deputy director at the agency. Feinstein then spent days hardening her position against Haspel and voted against the nominee, who ended up getting confirmed.

But Feinstein has homed in on the Supreme Court fight during her reelection bid. Speaking to supporters in Oakland, Calif., in July, she touted her role as the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, saying that “we will put together a kind of message, I hope, for the American people which will enable those Democrats to vote along with us.”

Sen. Dick DurbinDick DurbinFour questions that deserve answers at the Guantanamo oversight hearing Senate dodges initial December crisis with last-minute deal Conservatives target Biden pick for New York district court MORE (Ill.), the No. 2 Senate Democrat and a fellow member of the Judiciary Committee, praised Feinstein for her role in pushing back against Republicans' handling of Kavanaugh’s nomination, including their refusal to request documents from Kavanaugh’s time working as White House staff secretary under former President George W. Bush.

“She has led us, I think, effectively in protesting the treatment of documents. This is a dramatic departure from the tradition of the Senate,” Durbin told The Hill, adding that Republicans are trying to “conceal a lot of information on this nominee.”

Whether Feinstein will be able to hammer Kavanaugh enough to quell progressive skeptics, who worry Democrats will be too "nice," remains to be seen.

“I think she can,” said Heidi Hess, the co-director of liberal advocacy group Credo Action. “Whether she will or not is a different question. I think that is absolutely what progressives expect.”

Kavanaugh’s hearing comes as progressives are already fuming over what they argue is a lack of cohesive Democratic strategy on Supreme Court nominees. That anger is boiling over after Schumer and Democrats agreed to clear a tranche of lower court nominees for Trump before taking an extended Labor Day break.

Sroka said activists are trying to figure out “what the hell Chuck Schumer thinks he’s doing and trying to get him in line with … actually getting the Democratic caucus united against Kavanaugh.”

But while progressive frustration starts with Schumer, it runs down to other members of leadership and rank-and-file senators who have yet to formally come out against Kavanaugh, including Durbin and Sen. Christopher CoonsChris Andrew CoonsHouse passes bill to expedite financial disclosures from judges Overnight Energy & Environment — Presented by ExxonMobil — Dems seek to preserve climate provisions Democrats wrangle to keep climate priorities in spending bill  MORE (D-Del.), another member of the Judiciary Committee.

“They need to be doing more,” Hess said when asked if she thought Democrats on the committee were united. “You are on a committee to serve the country not just your constituents.”

Democrats have defended their party colleagues who want to wait until the hearing before they make, or at least announce, a decision.

“We have a process, and I’m respectful of the process,” Durbin told The Hill. “And there will be an end to that process where I announce my vote.”

He added that “announcing it earlier, rather than later, may be of some value politically to somebody, but I just think most Americans expect us to carefully review [Kavanaugh’s] record and fairly evaluate him.”

Democrats on the committee have repeatedly argued that this confirmation process has been rushed by Republicans who want to confirm Kavanaugh before the Supreme Court starts its next term in the first week of October.

But Democrats have so far shot down some of the tactics urged by progressives.

Fallon, during a conference call with reporters, noted that his group would support Democrats boycotting Kavanaugh’s hearing. Democratic members of the Judiciary Committee say that strategy isn’t on the table.

“I think we have a constitutional obligation to ask questions and make them tough questions so that the American people understand what his views are,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.). “If we permit our Republican colleagues to be the only ones asking questions, the American people certainly will never know what his views are before the vote.”

Other progressive activists said it wasn’t so much about Democrats boycotting the hearing but making sure they do something to show their voters that they aren’t just playing a game of kabuki on the Supreme Court fight.

“The real fear is that the Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee [will] make this look like it’s just a normal process that’s going on here, when what we’ve really got is an attempt by Republicans to ram through a right-wing justice for a lifetime appointment,” Sroka said.

Hess added that while she agreed with boycotting in theory, Senate Democrats hadn’t laid the groundwork for effectively using that tactic.

“Democrats should use any tools at their disposal to slow down the hearings,” she said, “to interrupt business as usual to the degree that they can procedurally ... as brave leaders and not just folks who are trying to maintain decorum.”