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Republicans block effort to replace Feinstein on Judiciary panel

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., pushed back at Democrats' effort to temporarily swap in another Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee as Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., recovers from shingles.
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Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., pushed back at Democrats' effort to temporarily swap in another Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee as Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., recovers from shingles.

Updated April 18, 2023 at 6:42 PM ET

Senate Republicans blocked an effort by Democrats to replace ailing California Sen. Dianne Feinstein on the Senate Judiciary Committee temporarily as she recovers from shingles at home.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., asked to move a resolution replacing her, at her request, until she can return, with Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md. The top Republican on the Judiciary panel, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R- S.C., objected and blocked the measure.

Graham said he hoped Feinstein would be back soon, but that adding a Democrat to her place while she is away would allow support for "a handful of judges that I think should never be on the bench."

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell earlier on Tuesday signaled that Republicans opposed the effort by Democrats to replace Feinstein on the committee. He said the bulk of President Biden's judicial nominees have bipartisan support and replacing Feinstein would allow Democrats to approve nominees he labeled "unqualified."

"So let's be clear: Senate Republicans will not take part in sidelining a temporary absent colleague off a committee just so Democrats can force through their very worst nominees," McConnell said Tuesday.

Feinstein, 89, has not voted since February, and says she needs more time to recuperate after a diagnosis of shingles. Democrats have raised concerns that without her vote, Biden's nominees are stalled in committee. California Democratic Rep. Ro Khanna called on Feinstein to resign last week, telling NPR she was an "absentee" senator. Another House Democrat, Minnesota Rep. Dean Phillips, agreed.

In response, Feinstein released a statement saying her recovery was taking longer than she anticipated, and she requested that Schumer replace her on the Judiciary panel until she can return for votes in Washington.

McConnell called the request by Schumer to replace Feinstein on one committee "extremely unusual" and called Feinstein "a dear friend," a "Titanic figure" and a "stateswoman."

McConnell specified that there were "a small fraction" of nominees that cannot get any Republican votes in the committee. "The far left wants the full Senate to move a senator off a full committee so they can ram through a small sliver of nominees who are especially extreme or especially unqualified."

Any move to change committee assignments would need 60 votes to pass and Democrats are operating with a slim 51-49 majority.

Senate Democrats have broadly supported Feinstein's request to give her more time to recover. But without GOP support to replace her, there will likely be new pressure on Feinstein.

Schumer sidestepped a question Tuesday on whether Feinstein should step down, telling reporters, "I spoke to Senator Feinstein just a few days ago and she and I are very hopeful that she will return very soon."

Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, a member of the GOP leadership team, told reporters Monday, "I would not support [a replacement] at all. We're not going to help the Democrats with that."

Another Republican, Maine Sen. Susan Collins, criticized Democrats, saying Feinstein has "been an extraordinary senator and she's a good friend of mine. During the past two years, there's been a concerted campaign to force her off of the Judiciary committee and I will have no part of that."

Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, a member of the Judiciary panel, said Monday, "I hope she comes back soon. I respect her a lot. Her voters voted her in for six years and I do think this is a decision that Dianne and her constituents should make."

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., a member of the Judiciary committee, told NPR that the committee should press ahead with nominations and "we will use all of the rules and tools available." He declined to give details but said Democrats have options. He also said Feinstein could be back "in a couple of weeks."

Michigan Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow told reporters, "I think that she's anxious to come back and so we'll have to see. I think that she has been such — over the years — such a force, such a role model for me and that I just want her to be treated with respect, like everybody else. She'll make the right decision."

It's unclear what next steps Democrats will take. GOP lawmakers have also recently had absences due to medical issues. Maine independent Sen. Angus King told NPR he could see how "the situation may be reversed at some point in the reasonably foreseeable future."

McConnell recently missed several weeks in the Senate after falling and suffering a concussion and minor rib fracture in early March.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Deirdre Walsh is the congress editor for NPR's Washington Desk.
Barbara Sprunt is a producer on NPR's Washington desk, where she reports and produces breaking news and feature political content. She formerly produced the NPR Politics Podcast and got her start in radio at as an intern on NPR's Weekend All Things Considered and Tell Me More with Michel Martin. She is an alumnus of the Paul Miller Reporting Fellowship at the National Press Foundation. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Pennsylvania native.