“It’s bad, and it’s getting worse": Senate whispers escalate over Feinstein's "mental fitness"

“It’s bad, and it’s getting worse": Senate whispers escalate over Feinstein's "mental fitness"
Erin Schaff/The New York Times via AP

Perhaps there is more to this than just progressive grudges against Dianne Feinstein after all — or at least more now.  “There’s a joke on the Hill,” one Democratic staffer told the San Francisco Chronicle. “We’ve got a great junior senator in Alex Padilla and an experienced staff in Feinstein’s office.” Democrats on Capitol Hill haven’t yet gone fully on the record, but even some of her Senate Democrats are apparently acknowledging sotto voce that California’s senior senator has grown too senior for the job:

“It’s bad, and it’s getting worse,” said one Democratic senator. This person said that within the Senate, Feinstein has difficulty keeping up with conversations and discussions. …

“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.

Don’t count Alex Padilla among the whisperers, though. Padilla went on the record to defend Feinstein, while acknowledging that he’s heard the complaints. Tim Kaine also defended Feinstein’s capacity, although in a curious anecdote about receiving a personal note offering her condolences for getting stuck in the Virginia winter road closure a few months ago. Nancy Pelosi castigated critics for attacking Feinstein so soon after the loss of her husband.

However, these concerns stretch back longer than just the last several weeks. These whispers have circulated at least as far back as the fall of 2020 when progressives demanded and received Feinstein’s removal from her judiciary committee ranking-member post over her comity with Lindsey Graham during the Amy Coney Barrett confirmation hearing. Chuck Schumer’s statement on the action hinted at capacity issues, and it wasn’t long afterward that the possibility of dementia began getting debated in the pages of the New Yorker.

The complaints then sound a lot more like the complaints now, in fact:

But many others familiar with Feinstein’s situation describe her as seriously struggling, and say it has been evident for several years. Speaking on background, and with respect for her accomplished career, they say her short-term memory has grown so poor that she often forgets she has been briefed on a topic, accusing her staff of failing to do so just after they have. They describe Feinstein as forgetting what she has said and getting upset when she can’t keep up. One aide to another senator described what he called a “Kabuki” meeting in which Feinstein’s staff tried to steer her through a proposed piece of legislation that she protested was “just words” which “make no sense.” Feinstein’s staff has said that sometimes she seems herself, and other times unreachable. “The staff is in such a bad position,” a former Senate aide who still has business in Congress said. “They have to defend her and make her seem normal.”

Feinstein has always been known as a difficult taskmaster. She is said to have told someone applying for a job in her office, “I don’t get ulcers—I give them.” A stickler for detail, she demanded to see every page going out of her office with her name on it. But with her diminishing capacity, this has become increasingly difficult. The former Senate staffer who still works with Congress declared, “It’s been a disaster.” As the ranking Democrat, Feinstein ordinarily would be expected to run the Party’s strategy on issues of major national importance, including judicial nominations. Instead, the committee has been hamstrung and disorganized. “Other members were constantly trying to go around her because, as chair, she didn’t want to do anything, and she also didn’t want them doing anything,” the former Senate staffer said. A current aide to a different Democratic senator observed sadly, “She’s an incredibly effective human being, but there’s definitely been deterioration in the last year. She’s in a very different mode now.”

At the time, some of this got written off as progressives grinding an axe. Seventeen months later, that axe has long been buried as Feinstein returned to the fold. That makes this report more credible — even if skepticism should still be applied — and by extension the earlier reports of Feinstein’s mental decline well before her husband’s passing.

So what can Democrats do about it? The easiest thing for them to do would be to jolly Feinstein along for the next two years and ask her not to run in 2024, which she’s probably not inclined to do anyway. But if her capacity has declined as badly as the SF Chronicle article indicates, then she’s probably not capable of continuing in office. They would need her to resign and allow Gavin Newsom to appoint a successor that could then run for a full term in 2024. That would most likely be Ro Khanna, but Newsom might feel pressure to appoint a woman to that position — Karen Bass, who would also check the box on having California’s first black woman in the US Senate. Whomever Newsom appoints would have the inside track on the Democratic primary for the seat in 2024, but not necessarily a lock on it.

Failing all of that, the Senate could remove Feinstein, but that would take a 67-vote majority, and no one in the Senate would want to set that kind of precedent. Especially not its octagenarian class, which itself would likely prevent a removal. If Feinstein won’t leave, she’s staying, and all of the whispers won’t make much of a difference.

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