Dianne Feinstein back in Washington

May 10, 2023

Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Ca.) is finally back in Washington after a long absence that amplified longstanding doubts about her fitness to serve. 

The 89-year-old Democrat returned to the nation's capital Tuesday after months spent in recovery from the shingles.

Pressure on Feinstein to resign grew during her long absence, which had left Democrats unable to confirm federal judges.

Feinstein returns

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-Ny.) said Feinstein is "ready to roll up her sleeves."

“I’m glad that my friend Dianne is back in the Senate and ready to roll up her sleeves and get to work. After talking with her multiple times over the past few weeks, it’s clear she’s back where she wants to be and ready to deliver for California,” Schumer said in a statement Tuesday.

While she was away, Schumer pushed for Feinstein to be temporarily replaced on the Senate Judiciary Committee, an extraordinary request that Republicans rejected.

Feinstein has said she won't seek another term in 2024 but she has resisted calls to step down before then.

Her time away coincided with the absence of freshman Democratic senator John Fetterman (Pa.), who returned in April after weeks spent in the hospital for depression.

Awkward tensions

There have long been rumors about Feinstein's cognitive health, and her prolonged absence only drew closer attention to her age. It also brought some awkward tensions to the surface.

Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Ca.) condemned "sexist" calls from a handful within the party for Feinstein, the first woman elected to the Senate in California and the oldest senator currently serving, to resign.

"I don't know what political agendas are at work that are going after Sen. Feinstein in that way," Pelosi said in April. "I've never seen them go after a man who was sick in the Senate in that way."

Democrats have mostly avoided pressuring Feinstein to resign out of respect for the senator, but a competitive primary for her reliably blue seat is already taking shape, with California Democrats Katie Porter, Adam Schiff - who Pelosi has endorsed - and Barbara Lee, a black woman, jockeying for position.

Governor Gavin Newsom (D) has pledged to appoint a black woman if Feinstein steps down early, an outcome that would almost certainly benefit Lee.

Feinstein's return seems to defuse an awkward racial controversy -- at least for now. The question now is, can she stay on the job for another 16 months?

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