Senate Republicans blocked a plan by Democrats to quickly replace Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) on the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) objected when Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) sought unanimous consent for a resolution that would allow Ben Cardin, a Democrat who is the senior senator from Maryland, to take Feinstein’s place.
“She’s a dear friend and we hope for her speedy recovery and return back to the Senate. With all due respect, my colleague, Sen. Schumer, this is about a handful of judges that you can’t get the votes for,” Graham said, per CNN.
As Graham indicated, central to the debate are nominees to federal courts around the country. By mid-February, the Senate confirmed more than 100 judicial appointments, meaning that in two years President Joe Biden was outpacing his immediate predecessors. Any effort to reshape the federal judiciary ran into a roadblock when the judiciary panel, which considers both executive nominations and judicial nominations, when Feinstein became a no-show on Capitol Hill.
If Democrats press the issue, replacing Feinstein on the Judiciary Committee could lead to a vote that would require the support of 60 members in the narrowly-divided Senate. At least 10 Republicans need to join with Democrats and independents, but already prospects appear grim. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said on Tuesday that GOP senators “will not take part in sidelining a temporary absent colleague off a committee just so Democrats can force through their very worst nominees.”
Feinstein announced in early March that she had been hospitalized in San Francisco after being diagnosed with a case of shingles. Though Feinstein said she hoped to return to the Senate by the end of the month, that didn’t happen and some of her fellow Democrats, including Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA), began to crank up the pressure for Feinstein to retire. Instead of giving in, Feinstein asked Schumer last week to temporarily replace her on the Judiciary Committee while she continues to recover.
Judiciary Chairman Dick Durbin (D-IL) recently conceded that Feinstein’s absence is holding up the ability of the panel, which is split 10-10 along party lines without her, to advance Biden’s nominees to federal courts around the nation. “I can’t consider nominees in these circumstances because a tie vote is a losing vote in committee,” he told CNN.
Also potentially at stake is a possible hearing focused on Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and the revelations of previously undisclosed gifts and luxury trips from a wealthy conservative donor. An aide to the Democrats told NBC News that the use of a subpoena is “out of the question” without a majority on the committee.
It remains possible that Feinstein does make a return to Washington, D.C. in the near future and there will not be a need for a vote to replace her on the judiciary panel. In speaking with reporters on Tuesday, Schumer said he “spoke to Sen. Feinstein just a few days ago and she and I are both very hopeful that she will return very soon.”
Feinstein, the Senate’s oldest member at the age of 89, announced in February she would not seek re-election in 2024. Three prominent House Democrats — Reps. Adam Schiff, Katie Porter, and Barbara Lee — have announced campaigns to replace Feinstein in the Senate.