Senate

Feinstein to step down as top Democrat on Judiciary Committee

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Calif.) announced Monday she is stepping down as the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee after groups on the left such as NARAL Pro-Choice America criticized her handling of Amy Coney Barrett's Supreme Court confirmation hearing this fall.

Feinstein said she needs to focus on "two existential threats" facing California: wildfire and drought.

"After serving as the lead Democrat on the Judiciary Committee for four years, I will not seek the chairmanship or ranking member position in the next Congress," she said in a statement.

Feinstein came under scathing criticism after she hugged Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) at the end of Barrett's confirmation hearing and praised his handling of it.

The collegial gesture was out of step with the Democrats' messaging, which sought to portray the Republicans' expedited schedule for placing Barrett on the high court before the election as an unfair circumvention of voters after the GOP blocked Judge Merrick Garland's nomination to the Supreme Court during the 2016 presidential election.

Feinstein sparked outrage on the left after she thanked Graham for "one of the best set of hearings that I've participated in" and praised her GOP colleague for "fairness" and "the opportunity of going back and forth."

Two groups, NARAL Pro-Choice America and Demand Justice, both of which opposed Barrett's nomination, immediately called on Feinstein to step down.

NARAL Pro-Choice America's Ilyse Hogue said in October that Feinstein failed to make clear that Barrett's confirmation process was "unprecedented, shameful and wrong."

Brian Fallon, the executive director of Demand Justice, said Monday that Feinstein's resignation as the Democratic leader of the Judiciary panel was "a necessary step."  

"This was a necessary step if Democrats are ever going to meaningfully confront the damage Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell have done to the federal judiciary," Fallon said.

"Going forward, Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee must be led by someone who will not wishfully cling to a bygone era of civility and decorum that Republicans abandoned long ago," he added. "The next top Democrat on the committee must be someone who is willing to fight for President-elect Biden's nominees no matter what, and who will pursue bold action to restore balance to our courts."

Feinstein's decision sets up a potential contest between Sens. Dick Durbin (Ill.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.) over who will replace Feinstein as the top-ranking Democrat on the Judiciary panel.

Durbin on Monday evening announced he would make a bid to replace Feinstein atop the committee.

"I intend to seek the top Democratic position on the Judiciary Committee in the 117th Congress," he said in a statement. "I have served on the committee for 22 years and I am its most senior member who does not currently serve atop another Senate Committee.

"We have to roll up our sleeves and get to work on undoing the damage of the last four years and protecting fundamental civil and human rights," he said. 

Durbin was reelected this month as the Senate minority whip, and there is no rule preventing him from serving as both the second-ranking Senate Democratic leader and the chairman or ranking member of the Judiciary Committee.

Some Democratic senators, however, say privately that the Democratic whip shouldn't also be the chairman or ranking member of a powerful committee.  

Durbin is one of the Senate's leading proponents of protecting immigrants who came to the country at a young age from deportation under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which will be a top issue in 2021.

Whitehouse on Monday praised Feinstein's service.

"Sen. Feinstein has led Judiciary Democrats with dignity and honor. I appreciate her service as ranking member and look forward to continuing our work together," he said. 

Sen. Patrick Leahy (Vt.) is the most senior Judiciary Democrat, but he is already the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee. 

Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) praised Feinstein on Monday for her leadership of the committee.

"I am deeply grateful for Sen. Feinstein's leadership and contributions to our caucus and country," he said. "As a senior member of the Judiciary, Appropriations, Intelligence and Rules Committees, I know Sen. Feinstein will continue her work as one of the nation's leading advocates for women's and voting rights, gun safety reform, civil liberties, health care and the rights of immigrants  who are yearning to become citizens."

Feinstein said in her statement Monday that she will continue to work on priorities such as gun safety, immigration reform and inequities in criminal justice.

"I will continue to do my utmost to bring about positive change in the coming years," she said. 

Feinstein, who is 87 years old, was re-elected to a 6th term in 2018. Senate Democrats do not have term-limits on committee chairmanships and ranking-memberships.

-Updated at 7:41 p.m.

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