The Democratic party is facing an internal rift over how to handle the diminishing abilities of one of their own. There is open debate within the party over whether Senator Dianne Feinstein, 89, whose health and cognitive abilities have come into question after a two-and-a-half-month absence due to shingles and other medical complications, should resign.
Questions over Feinstein’s ability to effectively represent California, the most populous US state, have been a sensitive issue for Democrats going back years. As her diminishing health plays out in the public eye there is a renewed urgency to the situation. Riding out her term in absentia until retirement next year is also not a viable option, with Feinstein the tie-breaking vote on the Senate judiciary committee, which holds confirmation hearings for judicial nominees, and effectively the only person who can ensure that Joe Biden’s picks for judges go through.
Feinstein’s compounding health issues and status as the oldest member of Congress now present Democrats with a complex problem that has pitted several prominent members of Congress against each other, as several lawmakers issued calls in recent weeks for Feinstein to step down.
California Democrats, who voted her into office six times, are increasingly divided over whether she should continue to serve. More than 60 progressive organizations called on her to step down – noting that the 39 million constituents she represents deserve “constant representation”. It hasn’t helped that the senator has physically shielded herself from her constituents and the press, dismissing questions about her health and ability to serve.
Feinstein’s eventual return to Washington on 10 May only prompted a new round of debate and news coverage, after she arrived looking exceedingly frail and appeared confused by reporters’ questions about her absence. Feinstein suffered more complications from her illness than previously disclosed, the New York Times reported, including post-shingles encephalitis and a condition known as Ramsay Hunt syndrome which causes facial paralysis.
Democrats split over Feinstein’s future
The New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez posted earlier this month on the social media app Bluesky that Feinstein “should retire”, and said her absence from Washington was causing “great harm” to the judiciary. Her message added to the push for Feinstein’s resignation from colleagues such as the California representative Ro Khanna, who has been publicly advocating for Feinstein to step down since early April.
Several other Democrats also issued statements both during and after her absence suggesting that Feinstein should consider whether she can fulfill her role.
“If she can’t come back month after month after month with this close of a Senate, that’s not just going to hurt California, it’s going to be an issue for the country,” the Minnesota senator Amy Klobuchar said during a CNN appearance in April.
Meanwhile, the Minnesota congressman Dean Phillips renewed his calls for Feinstein to step down in an op-ed for the Daily Beast this week. Phillips framed the Feinstein question as a matter of restoring voter trust in government and accountability, while claiming that Feinstein was unable to carry out her official duties.
“She – or those on whom she relies – must now decide whether to protect the senator’s personal interest or our nation’s best interests,” Phillips wrote.
But others in the party, including the California representatives Mike Levin and John Garamendi, have come to Feinstein’s defense over recent months, and yet more have deflected from taking any firm stance on the issue.
One of Feinstein’s longtime friends and allies, the former House speaker Nancy Pelosi, defended the senator during the push for her resignation and suggested that gender was playing a factor in the debate.
“I don’t know what political agendas are at work that are going after Senator Feinstein in that way. I’ve never seen them go after a man who was sick in the Senate in that way,” Pelosi said in April after Khanna and Phillips pushed for Feinstein to step down. (In an apparent response to this argument, Ocasio-Cortez said in her Bluesky post that it was “a farce” to claim calling for Feinstein’s resignation was “anti-feminist”.)
Pelosi’s eldest daughter is acting as Feinstein’s primary caregiver, according to Politico, adding another layer to Pelosi’s role in the situation. A spokesperson for Pelosi denied that the former speaker was exerting any undue influence, saying that Feinstein’s “service in the Senate is entirely her own decision”.
Part of the debate among Democrats over Feinstein’s future also appears to relate to power dynamics and allegiances within the party. If Feinstein steps down, the California governor, Gavin Newsom, stated he will appoint a Black woman as her replacement – a role that could go to Representative Barbara Lee. This would potentially give Lee a boost in what is set to be a hotly contested Democratic primary for Feinstein’s Senate seat next year. Pelosi has already openly endorsed Representative Adam Schiff for that seat, while Khanna is the co-chair of Lee’s campaign for the role.
No clear path forward
Democrats face a complicated situation in Feinstein. The Senate does have a mechanism for expelling members, but it requires a two-thirds majority and the last time it was used successfully was in 1862 to remove senators that supported the Confederacy. A scenario where Feinstein, a party icon who still has numerous supporters, is compelled to leave through such a proceeding is exceedingly unlikely.
An alternate path is that Feinstein voluntarily decides to step down, either a result of mounting pressure from her colleagues or a personal reckoning that she is no longer able to do the job. Despite the recent calls for her resignation from prominent Democrats, however, there is nothing indicating that the legendarily stubborn Feinstein is willing to remove herself from power. Feinstein denied visits and ignored phone calls from other politicians during her illness, according to the New York Times, and has dismissed questions over her fitness for office. On multiple calls with the Senate majority leader, Chuck Schumer, she reportedly showed no intention of ending her political career.
“I continue to work and get results for California,” Feinstein said in a statement issued to the New York Times in mid-May.
Even if Feinstein were to suddenly heed calls to resign, it’s not as simple as Democrats appointing a successor and continuing business as usual. Democrats currently hold an 11-10 majority on the judiciary committee, and there is a possibility that Republicans would use Feinstein’s retirement to stall judiciary appointments on procedural grounds – in a nightmare scenario for Democrats they could even hold up a potential supreme court justice nomination until after the 2024 election. Republicans already blocked an effort to temporarily replace Feinstein on the committee while she was absent last month, saying they would not give Democrats the ability to vote through their picks for judges. However, the Republican Lindsay Graham, the ranking Republican member of the committee has signaled that he would support replacing Feinstein if she retires.
The problem of an ageing senator appearing to lose their ability to do the job has come up in the past – the former senator Strom Thurmond finally retired in 2003 at the age of 100, after years of calls for him to resign – but the issue has become increasingly sensitive as the average age in Congress ticks upward and concerns grow over American gerontocracy.
Concerns over age and cognitive fitness for office are likely to become a persistent factor in Congress for years to come, with the Feinstein saga potentially setting a precedent for how parties handle similar situations in the future. Beyond Feinstein, perceptions of age and mental fitness are also likely to play a factor in the 2024 presidential election – with a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll showing that 43 percent of Americans surveyed believe that Donald Trump and Biden are both too old to serve another term.
Guardian staff contributed to this story