G.O.P. Blocks Feinstein Swap, Leaving Democrats in a Conundrum

WASHINGTON — Republicans on Tuesday blocked an attempt by Democrats to temporarily replace the ailing Senator Dianne Feinstein of California on the Judiciary Committee, raising new questions about how her party will be able to move forward with Senate work without her.

Pressure is mounting for Ms. Feinstein, 89, who was hospitalized with shingles in February and has announced she will not seek re-election in 2024, to resign now. Her prolonged absence means Democrats will be unable to advance President Biden’s judicial nominees and could be short of a vote on other crucial matters, including action expected to be needed in the coming months to raise the debt ceiling to avert a catastrophic default.

Hoping for a short-term solution, Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and the majority leader, asked on Tuesday evening that he be allowed to replace Ms. Feinstein temporarily on the Judiciary panel with Senator Benjamin L. Cardin of Maryland.

“Today, I am acting not just as leader but as Dianne’s friend, in honoring her wishes until she returns to the Senate,” Mr. Schumer said, adding that “few have left their mark on this country” as she has.

But Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, moved to block the request, saying that while he also considered Ms. Feinstein a “dear friend,” the issue went beyond personal affection.

“This is about a handful of judges you can’t get the votes for,” Mr. Graham said. “With that in mind and with all due respect to Senator Feinstein, I object.”

The stalemate had been expected; like almost all action in the Senate, the request required some level of bipartisan support — either unanimous consent or 60 votes — and Senator Mitch McConnell, the minority leader, had already made it clear that Republicans would not agree.

A Divided Congress

  • Jim Jordan: The Republican congressman from Ohio defines himself by his penchant for punching back, whether against allegations that he was derelict in a sex abuse scandal or attempts to prosecute Donald Trump.
  • A Chaotic Period: The high-profile absences of Senator Mitch McConnell and Senator Dianne Feinstein as they recover from injuries and illness has thrown the Senate into a state of uncertainty at a critical time.
  • Blocking Judges: An objection from a Republican senator from Mississippi to a Biden nominee has intensified calls to strip senators of effective veto power over judicial candidates from their states.

“Senate Republicans will not take part in sidelining a temporarily absent colleague off a committee just so Democrats can force through their very worst nominees,” Mr. McConnell told reporters earlier in the day. The sentiment was echoed throughout the Republican conference.

Responding to pressure from members of her own party to resign, Ms. Feinstein said last week she would not do so. Instead, she requested a temporary replacement on the panel, offering no timeline for her return.

As lawmakers trickled back to the Capitol after a two-week recess, Democrats pleaded for Republicans to show compassion to a colleague some of them have served with for decades.

Senator Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois and chairman of the Judiciary Committee, tried to appeal to a sense of collegiality that once prevailed in the Senate, particularly when it came to matters of age or infirmity.

“Tomorrow this could happen to the Republicans, and they could find themselves in a vulnerable position through no fault of their own,” Mr. Durbin said. “I hope that they’ll show a little kindness and caring for their colleague.”

With no good options, some Democrats hoped the logjam would coax Ms. Feinstein to re-evaluate her plans.

“If this goes on month after month after month, then she’s going to have to make a decision with her family and her friends about what her future holds,” said Senator Amy Klobuchar, Democrat of Minnesota, said on ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday. “This isn’t just about California; it’s also about the nation.”

Adding to the pressure on Ms. Feinstein is that, with Republicans in control of the House, judicial nominations are among the only things Senate Democrats can do on their own.

“The situation of just letting the nominations stall endlessly is not tenable,” said Brian Fallon, the executive director of the progressive advocacy group Demand Justice. “The conversation needs to be shifted to what can be done now. That concern hasn’t gone away, and this option isn’t going to solve it.”

Mr. Fallon said Democrats should increase the pressure on Republicans, including by trying to change filibuster rules to allow them to move unilaterally to replace her.

He said Democrats could also threaten to do away with blue slips, an informal Senate practice that allows a senator to block the nomination of a judge from his or her home state.

“Just raising the specter of it might cause the Republicans to think twice,” Mr. Fallon said. “Republicans didn’t even contemplate trying to meet the Democrats halfway because they don’t fear any reprisal.”

On Tuesday, when asked about doing away with blue slips, Mr. Schumer said that “Senator Durbin and the Judiciary are considering it.”

Questions about Ms. Feinstein’s ability to perform her job have dogged her for years and were prevalent even in 2018, when she decided to seek re-election. She has never been open to talk of resigning, even as some close to her have tried to urge her to engineer a graceful exit to safeguard her legacy as a pioneering woman in politics. Instead, she has slowly diminished her profile in the Senate, often begrudgingly.

In 2020, Ms. Feinstein agreed to relinquish the top Democratic spot on the Judiciary Committee amid pressure from progressives who said she was not up to the task of leading a crucial panel at the forefront of the partisan war over the courts in a new Biden administration.

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