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Is It Time for Sen. Dianne Feinstein To Drop Mic and Retire?

We love you, but bye?

Senator Dianne Feinstein walks through the halls of the Capitol Building.

Update 4/13/23: Senator Feinstein has reportedly asked Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to appoint a temporary replacement for her seat on the Judiciary Committee. “I intend to return as soon as possible once my medical team advises that it’s safe for me to travel,” Feinstein said in a statement, according to the AP. “In the meantime, I remain committed to the job and will continue to work from home in San Francisco.”

Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein, who at 89 is the oldest member of the U.S. Senate, has been seriously ill with shingles since early March, leaving her unable to participate in 58 out of 82 Senate votes so far in 2023, according to reporting from the San Francisco Chronicle. Missing votes when the Democratic majority in the Senate is so slim is, in itself, a pretty big problem. But the bigger, more long-term damage may be happening on the Judiciary Committee, where Feinstein normally serves. 

Committee Chair Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who has also been absent recently due to COVID, told CNN on Monday that he “can’t consider nominees in these circumstances because a tie vote is a losing vote in committee” and that her absence has deep ramifications on Democrats’ ability to confirm liberal federal court nominees—something they desperately want to do. The army of judges Trump was able to push through confirmation in his one term of the presidency is already responsible for some horrific ish going down in our country. We need to counteract that as soon as possible with more progressive federal judges from Biden. During Trump’s term, Senate Republicans confirmed 229 judges, including an absurd three U.S. Supreme Court Justices—that’s a third of the court! Biden’s tally so far is 119, including Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson. 

Growing up in Northern California as a baby radical feminist, Feinstein was a total hero to me. Was she perfect? Well, no. She was a dedicated soldier in the so-called “war on drugs,” did too little to help immigrants’ rights, and has taken a “tough on crime” stance throughout her career that has yielded questionable results. But was she the best we had leading the charge for women’s (i.e., human) rights issues like the Violence Against Women Act and the Child Care for Working Families Act? Did she work toward safeguarding the environment and getting guns off the streets? Yes, she was, and yes, she did. And I loved her for it. Still love her for being a groundbreaker. 

For the last few years, however, Feinstein has been dogged by reports that her health is “rapidly deteriorating,” as one congressman put it. Multiple sources are beginning to report that as Feinstein nears her 90th birthday, she may no longer be up to the responsibility of managing the 40 million Californians she represents in the U.S. Senate, in addition to the multiple committees she takes part in. 

“I have worked with her for a long time and long enough to know what she was like just a few years ago: always in command, always in charge, on top of the details, basically couldn’t resist a conversation where she was driving some bill or some idea. All of that is gone,” another congresswoman told the San Francisco Chronicle. “She was an intellectual and political force not that long ago, and that’s why my encounter with her was so jarring. Because there was just no trace of that.” 

I’m not happy with myself when I think about the possible ageism I’m demonstrating. But there’s a lot at stake here and it’s essential to be realistic about our limitations. For example, it was a Trump-appointed judge, Matthew Kacsmaryk, who just ordered a hold on federal approval of the abortion pill. We need more judges with human compassion on the bench! And it does not sound like that can happen without Feinstein—or her eventual replacement.

The next oldest sitting member of the Senate is Iowa Republican Chuck Grassley, who is only a few months younger and also 89. He, however, appears to be happy keeping his party floundering in the past and is running again in 2024. 

Feinstein has already announced she won’t be running for re-election but has no intention of retiring before the end of her term. That means she’ll be the Senator from California for nearly two more years, and some democrats are worrying about her “frail” state. Plus, the race for her seat in the 2024 election has already begun. Could the vote be moved up to a special election if Feinstein decided to tap out? Yes. Should it? Also, probably yes. 

And maybe it’s time for the decades of work behind her to be her legacy rather than the memory of not knowing when to quit, to the possible detriment of her party. That sounds harsh, but with this much on the line, I’ll take “harsh” over “massively disenfranchised” any day.

(featured image: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)


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