Senate Colleagues Concerned with Feinstein's Ability to Serve, but 88-Year Old Senator Says Otherwise

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Posted: Apr 14, 2022 2:45 PM
Senate Colleagues Concerned with Feinstein's Ability to Serve, but 88-Year Old Senator Says Otherwise

Source: Erin Schaff/The New York Times via AP

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) has prompted concerns among fellow senators for some time now about her ability to serve. Last year, for instance, Gov. Gavin Newsom was openly talking about who he intended to replace her with, the individual being a Black woman. Feinstein followed up with how she "absolutely" intended to serve her term, even stating, "I think that's pretty obvious." Her term goes until 2024. The 88-year-old, who has served in the U.S. Senate since 1992, is the oldest sitting senator, and she isn't getting any younger. She turns 89 in June. Earlier on Thursday, a report from the San Francisco Chronicle laid out these concerns. 

What the report shares, if it's true, could be damning. For instance, it begins by citing an anonymous Democratic lawmaker from California who claims that they had to reintroduce themselves to Feinstein and that Feinstein "repeated the same small-talk questions." And this one lawmaker isn't alone. 

From the report: 

The episode was so unnerving that the lawmaker — who spoke to The Chronicle on condition they not be identified because of the sensitivity of the topic — began raising concerns with colleagues to see if some kind of intervention to persuade Feinstein to retire was possible. Feinstein’s term runs through the end of 2024. The conversation occurred several weeks before the death of her husband in February. 

“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,” the lawmaker said. “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.”

Four U.S. senators, including three Democrats, as well as three former Feinstein staffers and the California Democratic member of Congress told The Chronicle in recent interviews that her memory is rapidly deteriorating. They said it appears she can no longer fulfill her job duties without her staff doing much of the work required to represent the nearly 40 million people of California.

They said that the memory lapses do not appear to be constant and that some days she is nearly as sharp as she used to be. During the March confirmation hearing for soon-to-be-Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, Feinstein appeared composed as she read pertinent questions, though she repeated comments to Jackson about the judge’s composure in the face of tough questioning. But some close to her said that on her most difficult days, she does not seem to fully recognize even longtime colleagues.

The lengthy report is chock full of examples of Feinstein having senior moments and seemingly not knowing not only other members but what bills entail. 

Not everyone is worried about her, and these people are willing to go on the record, including Sen. Alex Padilla, a fellow California Democrat: 

Other lawmakers defended Feinstein’s abilities in on-the-record interviews with The Chronicle, noting that she asks pertinent questions in committee hearings, votes as needed, and oversees an office that is still a strong player on legislation and constituent services.

Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine volunteered that after a recent snowstorm caused a traffic backup that resulted in him being stuck in his car for 27 hours commuting to D.C., Feinstein handwrote him a letter expressing how sorry she was for what he had experienced.

Some of these people bristle at singling out Feinstein, when congressional history is filled with aging male politicians who remained in office despite their declining state.

Padilla has known Feinstein since the mid-1990s, when he worked for her briefly. “I’ve heard some of the same concerns,” Padilla said, “but as someone who sees her multiple times a week, including on the Senate Judiciary Committee, I can tell you she’s still doing the job and doing it well.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, in a statement to The Chronicle, said she had not noticed a decline in Feinstein’s memory and noted her work on the recent reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act and the Supreme Court confirmation.

“Senator Feinstein is a workhorse for the people of California and a respected leader among her colleagues in the Senate,” Pelosi said. “She is constantly traveling between California and the Capitol, working relentlessly to ensure Californians’ needs are met and voices are heard.”

Pelosi said it was “unconscionable that, just weeks after losing her beloved husband of more than four decades and after decades of outstanding leadership to our City and State, she is being subjected to these ridiculous attacks that are beneath the dignity in which she has led and the esteem in which she is held.”

The report also noted that Feinstein has filed paperwork with the Federal Election Commission that would allow her to run in 2024, though she has not yet announced if she will run. She would be 91-years-old. In the meantime, should Democrats maintain control of the Senate following the upcoming midterm elections, Feinstein would replace Sen. Pat Leahy (D-VT) as the body's president pro tem, making her third in line to the presidency which certainly does add some urgency. The 82-year-old announced his retirement last November.

As a result of the report, "Feinstein" has been trending on Twitter, which, in a blurb about the trend, cites Feinstein's statement issued to the San Francisco Chronicle on March 28. 

"The last year has been extremely painful and distracting for me, flying back and forth to visit my dying husband who passed just a few weeks ago," the statement said. "But there's no question I'm still serving and delivering for the people of California, and I'll put my record up against anyone's."

Feinstein almost certainly won't be expelled. If she won't retire, there's a pretty simple solution. Her fate in the U.S. Senate is up to the California voters, and they can just stop voting for her if they are so concerned about her mental capabilities when it comes to doing the job they've elected her to do. It's possible that they won't, considering the report spoke of a March survey from the Public Policy Institute of California that 36 percent of likely voters approve of the way she's doing her job.