Senate

Democrats seem unlikely to move against Feinstein

Calls to remove Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Calif.) as the senior Democrat and potential next chairwoman of the Senate Judiciary Committee are being met with silence from her Democratic colleagues.

While there is frustration with some members over Feinstein, who hugged Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) after the contentious confirmation hearings for Amy Coney Barrett, President Trump’s nominee to the Supreme Court, there is also widespread support for the California lawmaker.

Any decision to remove Feinstein from serving as chairwoman or ranking minority member in the 117th Congress, which convenes in January, would have to be approved by a vote of the entire Senate Democratic Caucus. And the support for such a move does not appear to be there.

“The caucus is very, very cautious of those kind of things. They all kind of acknowledge that there but for the grace of God go I. They all want to retire with their boots on, or not retire,” said one Democratic aide. “I would be really surprised if you saw anything that approaches a real effort to push her out, or anyone else.”

One Democratic senator on Monday said there is “frustration” over Feinstein’s style of running the committee, which her defenders characterize as “civil” or “moderate” and her detractors call “out of step” with the times and the brass-knuckles style of Trump and his GOP allies.

Feinstein came under sharp criticism last week for praising Barrett’s confirmation hearings as “one of the best set of hearings that I’ve participated in” and thanking Graham for his “fairness.”

Graham is a chief Democratic villain for his flip-flop of approving Barrett’s confirmation before a presidential election after saying he would do no such thing. Graham and other Senate Republicans did not give a hearing to Merrick Garland, former President Obama’s nominee to the court in March of 2016.

Feinstein, after praising Graham, gave the embattled South Carolina senator, who is facing a tough reelection race, a hug.

NARAL Pro-Choice America, one of the nation’s leading advocates for abortion rights, called for Feinstein to step down for failing to make clear Barrett’s nomination “is illegitimate and this process is a sham.”

Demand Justice, another group on the left opposed to Barrett and Trump’s judicial nominees, said: “It’s time for Sen. Feinstein to step down from her leadership position on the Senate Judiciary Committee. If she won’t, her colleagues need to intervene.”

Democratic senators and aides, however, say Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) is highly unlikely to move against Feinstein because doing so would risk a nasty confrontation with a high-profile, respected colleague.

Outside groups and Democratic members of the Judiciary panel who are frustrated with Feinstein’s management of the committee would have to whip up a tidal wave of opposition to take her gavel.

Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), a member of the Judiciary Committee, on Monday defended Feinstein’s performance at Barrett’s confirmation hearings last week.

“All of us are very clear on the danger Barrett poses to the [Affordable Care Act], civil rights, voting rights,” said Hirono, praising the job Democrats on the Judiciary panel did last week explaining their objections to the nominee.

Hirono said Feinstein’s compliment of Graham’s handling of the hearing was “being gracious.”

“She banged away like the rest of us during the hearing,” she added.

Feinstein delivered a big moment during Barrett’s first day of answering questions when the nominee refused to state clearly whether Trump had the authority to unilaterally delay the presidential election.

Barrett said she’d need to hear arguments from litigants, read briefs and consult with her law clerks before answering, a moment that went viral.

Feinstein also pressed Barrett on whether she agreed with the late Justice Antonin Scalia’s view that Roe v. Wade was wrongly decided, another hot topic Barrett declined to answer substantively.  

Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.), who would be next in line for the Judiciary Committee chairmanship — according to seniority — declined on Monday evening to express any interest for the gavel.

“I’m not going to speculate on that,” he said.

He said he wasn’t even aware that one of the biggest abortion rights groups in the country called for Feinstein to step down.

“I haven’t heard that,” he said.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) outranks Durbin — and Feinstein — in seniority on the Judiciary Committee, but he has already served as chairman and ranking minority member of the panel. He is expected to keep his position as the top-ranking Democrat on the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee.

After Durbin, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) would be next in seniority to serve as chairman or ranking member of Judiciary.

Whitehouse declined to respond to NARAL Pro-Choice America’s call for Feinstein to step down and noted that Durbin was ahead of him on the seniority ladder.

While the entire Democratic caucus would have to vote on a change at the top of the Judiciary panel, Schumer would have a major role in the decision.

The Senate Democratic Steering and Outreach Committee, which is chaired by Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and on which Schumer sits as the Democratic leader, would make recommendations to the caucus about who should serve as chair or ranking member of a committee.

Those recommendations are generally determined by a senator’s length of continue service on the committee, but the leadership can make a different recommendation if there are important other factors to consider.

Then-Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) almost moved to strip then-Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) of his chairmanship of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee after he endorsed Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) over Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential election.

The chair of the Steering and Outreach Committee is appointed by the Democratic leader and generally does what the leader wants.

But Schumer will have a variety of other challenges to juggle if Democrats win control of the Senate. He will have to navigate the thorny debate over whether to eliminate or curtail the minority party’s power to filibuster legislation, which outside liberal groups are demanding. Picking a fight over Feinstein in such a context might not be desirable.

While there’s some dissatisfaction among a handful of Senate Democrats with Feinstein, there’s little appetite to get into an ugly fight over her future, which could come back to haunt senators. Feinstein would be the first woman to lead the Judiciary panel if Democrats take the majority.

“Dianne Feinstein is a wonderful lady, I thought she did a great job and I support her,” said Sen. Joe Manchin (W.Va.), a centrist Democrat whose ascension to the most senior Democratic position on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee was challenged at the end of 2018 by some outside environmental groups.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) and Democratic mega-donor Tom Steyer joined activist groups in calling for Manchin to be blocked because of his relationship with coal and energy companies.

But when it came time for the caucus to decide on whether to let Manchin replace Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) as the top Democrat on the panel, there was no serious discussion about circumventing him, according to a Senate Democratic aide familiar with the process.

“You could make the same argument for others,” the first Democrat aide said. “I’d be really surprised if you saw any mobilization whatsoever to try to move on her.”

Tags Amy Coney Barrett Amy Klobuchar Barack Obama Charles Schumer Chuck Schumer Dianne Feinstein Dick Durbin Donald Trump Filibuster Harry Reid Jay Inslee Joe Manchin John McCain judicial confirmations Lindsey Graham Maria Cantwell Mazie Hirono Merrick Garland Patrick Leahy Sheldon Whitehouse Supreme Court Tom Steyer
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