After Dianne Feinstein announced she’d contracted the shingles in early March, her staff said she planned to return to the Senate within a matter of weeks.
But multiple Democrats close to her, as well as top-ranking congressional aides, are growing increasingly concerned that she may never come back to Washington at all.
The 89-year-old California senator has spent nearly two months away from the Capitol, including a stint in the hospital before returning home to San Francisco to recover.
Three people who have visited with the senator in recent weeks or been briefed on her status say her diagnosis appears to have taken a heavy toll on her. Other confidants, including two who have seen or spoken with the senator, underscored that they are still hopeful she could serve out the nearly two years that remain in her term. But neither of those people, who addressed the sensitive matter on condition of anonymity, indicated they were confident she would be able to do so from Washington.
Indeed, aides and confidants are currently offering up no firm timeframe for her return to a chamber where Democrats are sorely missing her vote. And Feinstein’s own spokesperson Adam Russell said that there was no update on her expected date to return to Washington, though at least one associate to the senator said she’s “making good progress in her recovery.”
Feinstein’s absence has already forced her party to change how they run the Senate, where Democrats can’t move President Joe Biden’s judicial picks without her vote. And in California, the emerging race to succeed Feinstein is in a holding pattern of its own thanks to the uncertainty about her future — and persistent chatter about whether Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom might be forced to disrupt the contest by appointing her successor.
The senator, an iconic presence in the party who passed up its top spot on the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2020 amid speculation about her mental acuity, has kept word of her condition hush-hush. Her staff has been reticent to talk about her health even with other members of the California delegation, according to six Democrats familiar with the conversations.
It’s a delicate dynamic, one made even tougher by Senate Democrats’ 51-vote majority. And speculation about Feinstein’s future ratcheted higher after the recent departure of her chief of staff, David Grannis, who left for a new role in the Biden administration. James Sauls, a longtime aide on the Senate Intelligence Committee, has stepped into the chief of staff role, according to Russell.
While her illness has kept Feinstein from voting in the Judiciary panel to approve Biden’s nominees for the federal bench, effectively stalling those confirmations for now, it’s also being felt on the Senate floor. The California Democrat has missed nearly 60 votes since her shingles diagnosis in mid-February.
That lengthy absence has strained Democrats’ 51-49 majority in the chamber, with Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.) also absent for weeks while in treatment for depression.
Vice President Kamala Harris has broken several ties to confirm judicial nominees on the floor, but committee action has been postponed on multiple nominations in her absence. There are currently 14 pending judicial nominees who have had hearings but have not gotten a vote in committee.
“I’m anxious, because I can’t really have a markup of new judge nominees until she’s there,” said Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the party’s No. 2 and the Senate Judiciary Committee chair told POLITICO late last month.
Durbin took the top Democratic spot on the panel in late 2020 after Feinstein ceded it following a firestorm of liberal fury with her cordial treatment of the GOP — and then-Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett.
Since then, pressure has mounted on Feinstein from some fellow Democrats to end her storied career on her own terms. Just this week, liberals began reupping their nudges for her to step aside; Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.) retweeted a post appearing to call for Feinstein to retire, though it’s not clear whether the move amounted to an endorsement of that stance.
The longest-serving woman in Senate history eventually said in February she would not seek another term but vowed to complete her current one.
Days after that announcement, the shingles sidelined Feinstein.
The race to replace the trailblazing California political giant is already crowded, with House Democratic Reps. Adam Schiff, Katie Porter and Barbara Lee battling for the seat that hasn’t been vacant in more than 30 years. Complicating their emerging rivalry is Newsom’s 2021 commitment to nominating a Black woman for the Senate should Feinstein resign.
If he sticks to that promise, it would put a finger on the scale for Lee — who, if appointed to serve out the rest of Feinstein’s term, could run for a full term next year with the advantage of incumbency.
California is one of the 36 states that allow the governor to appoint a senator to hold the seat until the next regularly scheduled statewide election. However, should an appointment happen too close to March 2024, experts said the Senate election could not be consolidated with the primary.
Nicholas Wu, Sarah Ferris and Daniella Diaz contributed to this report.