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Democrats worry Feinstein can't handle Supreme Court battle

Published on September 24, 2020 12:28 AM
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As the Senate prepares for yet another brutal Supreme Court nomination fight, one particularly sensitive issue is creating apprehension among Democrats: what to do with 87-year-old Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the ranking member of the Judiciary Committee.

Feinstein, the oldest member of the Senate, is widely respected by senators in both parties, but she has noticeably slowed in recent years. Interviews with more than a dozen Democratic senators and aides show widespread concern over whether the California Democrat is capable of leading the aggressive effort Democrats need against whoever President Donald Trump picks to replace the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

The Judiciary Committee is the critical battleground in the Supreme Court confirmation process. At stake, her own Democratic colleagues worry, is more than just whether the party can thwart Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in his rush to fill the seat. Some Democrats privately fear that Feinstein could mishandle the situation and hurt their chances of winning back the majority.

Feinstein sometimes gets confused by reporters? questions, or will offer different answers to the same question depending on where or when she?s asked. Her appearance is frail. And Feinstein's genteel demeanor, which seems like it belongs to a bygone Senate era, can lead to trouble with an increasingly hard-line Democratic base uninterested in collegiality or bipartisan platitudes.

Just this week, Feinstein infuriated progressives after declaring her opposition to ending the Senate?s legislative filibuster ? a top goal of party activists if Democrats win full control of the Congress and White House in November. Some on the left called on her to resign over the comments, although other Democratic moderates have expressed similar views.

In a phone interview, Feinstein pushed back hard against suggestions she could no longer effectively serve as ranking member of the Judiciary panel or is incapable of handling the upcoming nomination fight.

I'm really surprised and taken aback by this. Because I try to be very careful and I?m puzzled by it,? Feinstein told POLITICO. ?My attendance is good, I do the homework, I try to ask hard questions. I stand up for what I believe in.?

Feinstein relies heavily on her ever-present staff to deal with any issues, frequently turning to them for help in responding to inquiries. Feinstein had to be coaxed into wearing a mask around the Senate during the early days of the pandemic, despite being part of the most vulnerable age groups for the disease. She?s only made two floor speeches in the last nine months, her last being in early July, although she remains active in committee hearings.

And then there?s the lingering fallout over Feinstein?s role in the hugely controversial Judiciary Committee hearings for Justice Brett Kavanaugh in 2018, an issue that factors deeply into the questions about her suitability for this latest nomination fight.

Feinstein waited for several weeks before disclosing allegations by Christine Blasey Ford that Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted her when they were teenagers. The bombshell accusations nearly sank Kavanaugh?s nomination, and senators in both parties questioned why Feinstein didn?t move more quickly to disclose Blasey Ford?s statement.

A Democratic senator, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said a group of Feinstein?s colleagues want Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) or Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) to serve as the top Democrat on the Judiciary panel for the upcoming nomination hearings, which are expected to be extraordinarily contentious. This senator is worried that potential missteps by Feinstein could cost Democrats seats.

?She?s not sure what she?s doing,? the Democratic senator said of Feinstein. ?If you take a look at Kavanaugh, we may be short two senators because of that. And if this gets [messed] up, it may be the same result.?

?I think it could impact a number of seats we can win,? the senator added.

Another Democratic senator said party leaders were ?in an impossible position,? pointing out that Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y) and other senior Democrats can?t replace a female senator for hearings on an expected female nominee to replace a deceased female Supreme Court justice.

However, the senator said there have been discussions among some Democrats about making changes to the seniority system next year due to their concerns over Feinstein. The California Democrat would be Judiciary chair if Democrats win the majority.

A third Democratic senator put it this way: ?She can?t pull this off.?

Other Democrats privately said there have been complaints to party leaders that Feinstein is not capable of handling the Judiciary post in the current situation. Some of these senators said Feinstein should have retired rather than run for reelection in 2018 at age 85. Feinstein?s age was an issue in that campaign and was raised repeatedly in news reports, but she defeated Democrat Kevin de Leon by almost 10 points.

Feinstein has already stumbled once in tangling with Amy Coney Barrett, who is widely seen as the frontunner to be Trump's Supreme Court nominee. At a 2017 hearing for an appeals court seat, Feinstein told Barrett that ?the dogma lives loudly within you? ? a remark that was instantly seized upon as ...