Senator Dianne Feinstein has requested a temporary replacement to fill her spot on the Senate Judiciary Committee, a move that would allow Democrats to confirm judges in her extended medical leave from the Senate. It also seems aimed at staving off mounting pressure on the 89-year-old to resign. “I understand that my absence could delay the important work of the Judiciary Committee,” Feinstein said in a statement Wednesday, emphasizing that she remains “committed to the job” she’s held since 1992. “I’ve asked [Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer] to ask the Senate to allow another Democratic senator to temporarily serve until I’m able to resume my committee work.” 

The request, which Schumer said he would act on when the Senate reconvenes next week, comes amid growing concerns among Democrats about Feinstein’s ability to serve. Questions have been circulating about her mental fitness ever since it was reported last year that she was struggling to recognize colleagues and follow policy discussions. But the concerns about Feinstein, the oldest member of the chamber, have escalated recently: She has been gone from the Senate since February due to shingles, with no clear timetable for her return, and Politico reported Wednesday that some associates worry she won’t return to Washington at all. 

That report sparked two Democratic calls for her to step down. “It’s time for [Feinstein] to resign,” California Representative Ro Khanna tweeted Wednesday. “We need to put the country ahead of personal loyalty.”

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“While she has had a lifetime of public service, it is obvious she can no longer fulfill her duties,” Khanna continued. “Not speaking out undermines our credibility as elected representatives of the people.”

Minnesota Representative Dean Phillips tweeted his agreement shortly thereafter, writing that while Feinstein is a “remarkable American whose contributions to our country are immeasurable,” it is “now a dereliction of duty to remain in the Senate and a dereliction of duty for those who agree to remain quiet.”

Feinstein, whose decision not to seek reelection has touched off an intra-party battle in California, is not the only senator missing from the chamber. Pennsylvania Democrat John Fetterman has been away since February after seeking treatment for depression, but has continued to work from the hospital and is due to return to the Senate next week. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who is 81, has been out since early March, when he suffered a concussion in a fall. Feinstein’s absence has been particularly felt because of her role on the committee tasked with confirming Joe Biden’s judicial nominees. “I’m anxious,” Senator Dick Durbin, who succeeded Feinstein as chair of the Judiciary Committee in 2020, told Politico in March. “I can’t really have a mark-up of new judge nominees until she’s there.” That problem would be solved if Schumer replaces her, but such a move will require 10 Republican votes, and it remains to be seen if the GOP will attempt to obstruct the replacement. 

Feinstein, in her statement Wednesday, seemed to resist calls to resign. Her allies like Nancy Pelosi, the California Democrat and former House Speaker, were reportedly angered by them. “I don’t know what political agendas are at work going after Senator Feinstein in that way,” Pelosi told reporters Wednesday, praising Feinstein’s leadership. “I’ve never seen them go after a man who was sick in the Senate that way.” 

But this isn’t necessarily a question of loyalty or Democrats “going after” a respected senator; this is a legitimate, albeit uncomfortable, question about whether her health is impairing her ability to serve. “There’s an urgency that voters in California feel about women’s rights, about the state of our democracy, and they want a senator who’s leading the fight on those issues,” Khanna told Politico. This is not a moment to be a bystander from the biggest state in the country that is leading on the issues of abortion and gun violence and democracy.”

“We don’t want an absentee senator,” Khanna added. 

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