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California Sen. Dianne Feinstein faces pressure to resign amid health absence

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Here in the U.S., California Senator Dianne Feinstein is facing pressure from fellow Democrats to resign. The 89-year-old Democrat has not voted since February as she recovers from a diagnosis of shingles. Her absence in the Senate is effectively stalling Democrats' efforts to confirm President Biden's judicial nominees. NPR congressional correspondent Deirdre Walsh joins us now. Deirdre, who are the Democrats urging Feinstein to step down?

DEIRDRE WALSH, BYLINE: So far, Juana, it's just been a small number of public calls for Feinstein to resign. Fellow California Democrat Ro Khanna was the first to tweet about Feinstein. He said, quote, "We need to put the country ahead of personal loyalty. While she has had a lifetime of public service, it is obvious she can no longer fulfill her duties." Another House Democrat, Dean Phillips of Minnesota, echoed Khanna's call, saying, quote, "It is now a dereliction of duty to remain in the Senate and a dereliction of duty for those who agree to remain quiet." Khanna insists many Democrats privately have been concerned about Senator Feinstein's ability to perform her duties of a senator.

I will say, as someone who's been on the Hill, there have been some private and some public calls in recent months raising questions about her health. Former Speaker Nancy Pelosi herself has praised Feinstein's record and suggested no one would be pushing for a sick male member of the Senate to step down. We should say Feinstein already announced she's going to retire at the end of her term in 2024, and there's already a competitive race in full swing.

SUMMERS: OK, so a lot of people there talking about Senator Feinstein. But what about her? How has she been responding to these calls from some other Democrats who say she should step down?

WALSH: She really hasn't directly responded to those calls, but she tried to get out ahead of any new pressure on her to resign by putting out a statement last night. It did acknowledge that her absence is taking longer than she anticipated. And it basically said she realizes her inability to vote as a member of the Judiciary Committee is having an impact. She said she's asking Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to temporarily replace her on the committee until she can return. The statement last night has appeared to tamp down any additional public calls.

SUMMERS: OK. For people who do not watch Congress as closely as you do, tell us about the impact of Feinstein's absence. What are the stakes here?

WALSH: Well, there's such a thin majority, so the main agenda for Senate Democrats right now is confirming President Biden's judicial nominees and nominees to administration posts. There are currently 10 nominees for federal judgeships eligible for a vote inside the Senate Judiciary and two more in the pipeline for consideration. If those nominees don't have bipartisan support, without Feinstein's vote on that committee, they'll likely be stalled out and won't get a full vote by the Senate, the full Senate. We've seen in recent weeks who federal judges are could have a really pivotal effect on whether policies can remain in place, like access to abortion medication. The chairman, Dick Durbin, of that committee announced his panel is going to have a hearing soon on abortion rulings - recent abortion rulings.

SUMMERS: So, Deirdre, could a different Democrat simply swap in for Senator Feinstein on the judiciary panel?

WALSH: It's not as easy as it sounds. A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said that Schumer is going to ask the Senate next week to replace Feinstein on that committee. But committee assignments are approved through a resolution by the full Senate, so they're going to have to pass a new one. One way would be to ask for unanimous consent, but a single senator could object and block that. GOP sources I talked to today have a lot of questions they say they need to be answered about - who a replacement would be, how long a replacement would last. So it's unlikely, it seems, that this would get unanimous consent. So any new resolution would need 60 votes in the Senate. And as we know, Democrats are operating with a 51-49 Senate majority right now.

I would expect this issue is going to take up some time next week. We'll see whether Republicans or enough Republicans are willing to go along with Schumer's effort to replace Feinstein on the committee. It's complicated, too, because Republicans have had their own absences. The top Senate Republican, Mitch McConnell, was actually out for several weeks after he had a fall last week. He tweeted out this afternoon he's going to be back on Monday. But McConnell is likely going to weigh in on this and have some influence. When he was Senate majority leader, he put such a huge priority on confirming then-President Trump's nominees for the federal bench. So he's someone who really understands how important these nominees ultimately can be in all kinds of rulings.

SUMMERS: NPR's Deirdre Walsh. Thank you.

WALSH: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF DONNIE TRUMPET AND THE SOCIAL EXPERIMENT SONG, "PASS THE VIBES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Deirdre Walsh is the congress editor for NPR's Washington Desk.
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