Dianne Feinstein has taken on a noticeably lighter schedule since she came back from California. She appears in the Senate only at committee hearings or on the floor when her vote is essential.
Her party is holding its collective breath as the 89-year-old returns.
As relieved as Democrats are to have her back to break the logjam on party-line judicial nominees that her absence created, they’re loath to openly discuss her condition beyond generic well wishes. Fellow senators say they aren’t hearing much from her at all.
“We need her in committee and on the floor,” Judiciary Committee Chair Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said, alluding to the need for Feinstein to vote on judicial nominees who lack any GOP support. “We’re doing our best to be sensitive to her medical condition.”
Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) spoke for many of his colleagues when he said: “She’s been ill and she’s elderly. And I really shouldn’t be talking, actually, because it’s just a difficult situation.”
The situation grew grimmer on Thursday, after the New York Times reported, and a spokesperson later confirmed, that Feinstein’s shingles had caused a number of complications that contributed to her evident visible decline in faculties. Those complications have also necessitated the use of a wheelchair while she’s at work.
But the diminished capacity of the senior senator for the nation’s most populated state was already apparent: Once a leading voice against gun violence, she skipped a recent Democratic Caucus meeting on guns. She has not attended regular caucus lunches or any committee activity where her votes are not required.
The fellow Democrats who asked her to resign during her prolonged absence haven’t recanted, but her committee votes and floor presence ahead of a high-stakes legislative summer have quieted some of their arguments and helped bottle up further such calls. Some, like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), had cited the effect of Feinstein’s absence on judicial confirmations in calling for her to leave before her term expires next year.
“If she couldn’t have come back, that’s a different discussion,” said Rep. Mark DeSaulnier (D-Calif.), who himself had a health scare recently after a running accident. “She’s making the votes now. So we’re not holding up appointments that are really important. … She’s here for what’s going to happen in the next couple of weeks.”
Feinstein’s office declined to comment for this story and pointed to statements provided earlier Thursday.
“I’m back in Washington, voting and attending committee meetings while I recover from complications related to a shingles diagnosis,” one of those statements said. “I continue to work and get results for California.”
When Feinstein appears in the Senate, she’s accompanied by a phalanx of staff running interference with reporters and whispering in her ear on a near-constant basis during committee meetings. Her aides, with assistance from Capitol Hill’s security apparatus and by request of the senator’s office, have kept her away from the congressional press corps as much as possible.
Feinstein is shuttled through a lower-profile entrance to the Capitol and up a back elevator on her way to the Senate chamber to vote. While one aide pushes her wheelchair, another clears the path ahead. Often Nancy Corinne Prowda, daughter of Nancy Pelosi, flanks her closely on the left with a security official also in the posse.
Many lawmakers have not seen the 30-year veteran senator since her return, and more said this week that they have not spoken to her, suggesting that she may be more isolated from her colleagues than ever.
Lawmakers are generally giving Feinstein plenty of space to make her own decisions about the future, but the senator’s longtime allies are bristling at the continued calls for her to resign.
“She is the same serious-minded, determined Dianne,” said Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), who’s known Feinstein since the senator was mayor of San Francisco. Eshoo added of Feinstein’s critics: “Thou doth protest too much. I think Shakespeare was right.”
The calls to resign were “absurd,” said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), who said she has not spoken to the senator since her return.
A spokesperson for Feinstein’s former junior senator, now-Vice President Kamala Harris, did not respond to a request for comment on any recent contact they have had.
In a statement, a Feinstein spokesperson acknowledged her continued “complications related to her shingles diagnosis,” including Ramsay Hunt syndrome and encephalitis, which “resolved itself” shortly after she was released from the hospital.
Entering and exiting the Senate through that entrance on Thursday afternoon, Feinstein declined to answer any shouted questions from reporters about her health other than to say “hi” to the assembled press corps.
But earlier in the day, she spoke briefly at a Judiciary panel meeting in favor of a slate of policing bills, referencing her nine years as San Francisco mayor during the late 1970s and 1980s and her support for “cops on the beat.” Despite her restricted mobility and colleagues’ impressions that she’s in pain, her voice was strong and clear.
Exiting the meeting, surrounded by staff, Feinstein wouldn’t respond to questions from reporters.
Colleagues are reluctant to openly discuss the health of the Golden State’s senior senator, but they’re not hearing much from her, either. Senate colleagues describe two reactions that might sound at odds: They are glad she has returned to work, but they see that she remains unwell and they are concerned.
“I’m glad to have her back. Clearly she’s physically in discomfort, and I consider [her] a friend. And I hope physically she gets stronger and can participate more regularly,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), ranking member of the Judiciary panel.
But the Judiciary Committee is clearly working around Feinstein, placing nominations on meeting agendas that only get taken up if she is able to appear. And Durbin has been explicit about the constraints of her limited return to work.
“If Sen. Feinstein arrives, we may be able to take up those additional nominees,” he said at the top of Feinstein’s first meeting back, which she did eventually attend and helped Democrats clear nominees along party lines.
Durbin said this week that he’s “being careful to invite her when she is ready” and that “her staff gives us indications” of when she will be able to participate. He said he and his staff talk “day to day” with her aides about scheduling.
Feinstein is also an appropriator, a coveted committee post that usually means significant control over federal dollars. But her colleagues are candid about the reality: she isn’t needed at hearings or in closed-door spending negotiations.
Tester described her lighter schedule as “less of an issue” on the appropriations panel, because “seldom do we need to take meaningful votes until we get the markup.”
Compared with the relentless Judiciary schedule, Senate spending bill markups aren’t set to start until at least June.
Feinstein also serves on the Intelligence Committee, which she formerly chaired, but hasn’t been back to its meetings or briefings, per her colleagues.
“I haven’t seen her,” ranking member Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said. “But her designee is there at every one of our meetings.”
If anything, Feinstein’s condition has prompted awkward public ruminations among lawmakers about their own mortality.
“It’s a very hard situation because, let’s face it, when I’m 89 years old I’ll be long dead. Trust me,” Tester said.
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