Is Dianne Feinstein Going to Die in the U.S. Senate?

With Sen. Patrick Leahy retiring at the end of this term, the job of President Pro Tempore of the Senate would fall to the 88-year-old Feinstein.
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After next year’s elections, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein would become president if the president, vice president and Speaker of the House all died or became incapacitated. 

It might be the only way to get her out of the Senate.  

With Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) announcing this month that he is retiring at the end of this term, the job of President Pro Tempore of the Senate would fall to the 88-year-old Feinstein. That would put her behind the Vice President and the Speaker of the House for the presidency.

But for many of Feinstein’s constituents, the senator is already behind, both in representing California’s increasingly progressive ideology and its diverse demographics. The impatience and frustration among her detractors that started in earnest after her last re-election have only grown more intense with time and controversial moves and Lindsey Graham hugs. 

“I think she should’ve retired a long time ago,” said R.L. Miller, a veteran environmental leader and an elected member of the Democratic National Committee from California. “I would not be surprised if she dies in office, as much as someone hates to be predicting stuff like that.” 

Miller is not alone in her criticism. She was a vocal supporter of Councilmember Kevin de Leon in his unsuccessful 2018 bid to retire Feinstein, and she still sees the senator as someone who would do California a great service by stepping down. 

For Miller and other Democrats, Feinstein’s long record is something to be admired. But a 2019 viral video of Feinstein lecturing children who were asking her to support the Green New Deal convinced party activists and environmentalists like Miller that Feinstein was out of touch with her party and her state.

“Her response to the youth activists in early 2019 shows that she absolutely does not get the existential nature of the climate threat,” Miller said. “She is badly out of step with the state and its priorities”

That sentiment is not limited to environmentalists. One Democratic strategist in Los Angeles, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that just about every Democrat he talks to “wants her out.”

Part of the reason that chorus is growing has to do with Kamala Harris going from being the only Black woman in the Senate to becoming the first Black Vice President, leaving the Senate without any Black women. Some California Democrats wonder when the white woman at the top will step down so someone younger and more a reflection of California’s racial and ideological makeup can step in.

Feinstein has meanwhile been all over the map on reforming the filibuster, and her embrace of Trump crony Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) after last year’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearings for Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett left many progressives fuming. She called the contentious hearings “one of the best set of hearings I’ve participated in.”

“She’s more in line with Joe Manchin than Alex Padilla,” the Democratic strategist said, noting how much Padilla has become beloved around the state in the short time since he was appointed by Gov. Gavin Newsom to replace Harris. 

“[Padilla] has become a progressive icon,” the strategist said. “Nobody’s talking about taking him out. He’s never even run statewide and Democrats are already consolidated behind him. Why? Because he actually reflects and represents the progressive values of this state.”

Assemblymember Alex Lee, the youngest member of the California legislature, doesn’t mince words when asked what he thinks Feinstein should do. 

“She should retire,” Lee told Los Angeles. “This state has become much more blue and progressive.” 

Lee pointed to California U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier, who announced this week she was retiring, as someone who was doing the right thing and passing the torch to the next generation. Feinstein, Lee said, is from a different political era and believes she sees her fellow senators as more of a constituency than the people of California. 

“They feel they’re part of this club, and they feel like they have to represent the institution,” Lee said. “This is not entirely a fault of her own. She came up in a very different era.”

Lee praised both Harris and Padilla as people with stories that are “more reflective of the California experience.” 

The impatience with Feinstein and references to her advanced age lead her defenders to respond with charges of ageism or sexism, which critics like Miller and Lee acknowledge complicate their calls for her resignation.. 

“I am a 26 year old, and I can’t be faulted for having my generational perspectives,” Lee said, . 

Miller recalled being tagged with the ageist criticism during the 2018 race when she was caring for her 94-year-old mother.

“Every time we tried to talk about [Feinstein’s]  mental acuity or lack thereof, we got shouted down as ageist,” Miller said. “And at that point I was taking care of my mother. I know what a sharp woman in her 90s looks like.” 

Hans Johnson, president of the East Area Progressive Democrats (EAPD), said that the ageist attacks he heard some Democrats level at Feinstein during her 2018 race “would make your hair curl.”

“Those accusations are not just window dressing,” he added. “Those are not biases and despicable forms of bigotry that are limited in any way to the right wing.” 

When speaking of Feinstein, Johnson doesn’t bring up the confrontation with the Sunrise kids or the filibuster or hugging Lindsey Graham. Instead he talks about the woman who found Harvey Milk’s body and a powerful politician who has been steadfast in her defense of a woman’s right to choose. 

“Those are not stories that Californians forget,” Johnson said, and that her critics “should grant her the respect that that position has earned and that she has earned through decades of public service.”

But he also doesn’t think Feinstein’s critics are going to have to wait much longer. 

In September, when California voters and pundits were fixated on the Republican effort to recall Newsom, former Sen. Barbara Boxer told the Los Angeles Times that if Feinstein called her, she would tell her former colleague that only she could decide if the time is right to resign.

“But from my perspective, I want you to know I’ve had very productive years away from the Senate doing good thing–so put that into the equation,’ said Boxer, who retired at 76 in 2017.

Her comments were written up in Politico as “Former Sen. Barbara Boxer nudges Feinstein on resignation.” But instead of seeing a nudge, Johnson said he sees a path that Boxer set and Feinstein can follow — he believes Feinstein will announce her retirement in January 2023, making room for a new field of candidates to take shape before the 2024 election when Feinstein would be running for re-election. 

“I think the Barbara Boxer pattern is a noteworthy one,” Johnson said. “She left the process open. Like a good California wine she let it breathe for a while and different people emerged.”

Of course the person who ultimately emerged as Boxer’s replacement went on to become Vice President of the United States, so it’s fair to assume that no matter when Feinstein decides to go, there will be a 405-style traffic jam to take her seat. 

For her part, Feinstein doesn’t seem to be in any hurry to go anywhere. The senator “works as hard today as she ever has,” her spokesman, Tom Mentzer, said. (Feinstein declined to comment for this story) “She uses her seniority and experience to get bills passed to help California. She secured billions for the state in the infrastructure bill, she has multiple climate change provisions in the Build Back Better legislation, she worked with state and local governments to boost homelessness funding and she continues to prioritize wildfire and drought as critical California issues.

“Her record stacks up against anyone’s,” Mentzer added, “and she plans to keep on helping California in the future.”