A bizarre exchange with reporters has raised new questions about the return of Dianne Feinstein, California’s senior senator who has been absent from Washington for months due to shingles.
Jim Newell, a reporter for Slate, ran into Feinstein shortly after the 89-year-old lawmaker voted on the Senate floor on Tuesday. When he and another journalist asked Feinstein how she has been received by her colleagues since returning to Washington, Feinstein appeared to insist that she had never left.
“I haven’t been gone. I’ve been working,” Feinstein told Newell and another reporter, according to a Slate article published Tuesday. She was asked if she meant she had been working remotely, to which Feinstein responded: “No, I’ve been here. I’ve been voting. Please. You either know or don’t know.”
The exchange comes as Feinstein faces pressure to resign amid questions about her health.
Now the oldest serving senator, Feinstein led the effort to pass a landmark 1994 assault weapons ban and fought for a full investigation of the CIA’s detention and interrogation program. But in recent years, media and Feinstein’s colleagues have increasingly questioned her fitness to serve as one of two senators representing the most populous US state.
Her three-month absence from the Senate judiciary committee this year threatened to derail the confirmation of Joe Biden’s judicial nominees, at a time when 9% of district and appellate court seats remain vacant. And while Feinstein has managed to fulfil her committee duties since returning to Washington, questions remain about whether she can effectively govern. A San Francisco Chronicle report last year described Feinstein suffering memory losses and relying heavily on her staff to fulfil job duties.
The senator has said that doctors have asked her to maintain a lighter work schedule as she continues to recover, but has provided no details on what that means. She has continually dismissed reporters’ questions about her health and workload.
Some fellow Democrats, including the California representative Ro Khanna, have called on her to resign. “Three months is a long time to be absent without any clarity,” he told Politico.
Feinstein has said she wouldn’t seek re-election in 2024. Three California representatives – Adam Schiff, Katie Porter, and Barbara Lee – have already declared their candidacy. If Feinstein does decide to retire early, it would fall to Gavin Newsom, California’s governor, to appoint a temporary replacement.
Still, because Feinstein holds seniority after 30 years of service in the Senate, if she did step down, her replacement would not automatically wield the same authority she does on the judiciary committee and the powerful appropriations committee. The situation has rankled Californians who had called for Feinstein to step down earlier, before this term.