WASHINGTON – California Sen. Dianne Feinstein returned to the Senate on Wednesday after a two-and-a-half-month absence due to illness, giving majority Democrats a much-needed final vote as they seek to confirm President Joe Biden’s nominees and raise the nation’s debt ceiling in the coming weeks.
Looking noticeably thinner and frail, Feinstein is using a wheelchair to get around the Capitol as she continues to recover from a case of shingles. She missed the Senate’s first votes on Wednesday morning but arrived outside the Senate in a car for an afternoon vote, helped into the wheelchair by aides and greeted by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer with a handshake and affectionate pat on the back.
In a statement, Feinstein, 89, said she was continuing to recover from side effects of the shingles virus and would work a reduced schedule. While she had returned to Washington on Tuesday, she missed a vote on Tuesday evening and two votes on Wednesday morning before returning for the afternoon vote to confirm a Department of Education nominee.
“My doctors have advised me to work a lighter schedule as I return to the Senate,” Feinstein said in the statement. “I’m hopeful those issues will subside as I continue to recover.”
Feinstein’s return after 10 weeks away from the Senate gives Democrats a better cushion as they navigate their narrow 51-49 majority. She had asked Schumer to temporarily replace her on the Senate Judiciary Committee, where some of Biden’s judicial nominations have stalled without her tie-breaking vote. But Republicans blocked that request last month, giving Democrats few options to move those nominees – and important bills, like a potential debt package – unless she returned or resigned.
Still, it is unclear if Feinstein will be able to be present for every crucial vote. Her office said that while she was initially diagnosed with shingles on Feb. 26 and briefly hospitalized, she is still experiencing side effects like vision and balance impairments.
The illness came after Feinstein already had grown more frail in recent years, and has at times appeared confused or disoriented when talking to reporters in the Capitol. But she has defended her effectiveness.
In her statement, Feinstein said that the “most pressing” issue facing the Senate is to raise the debt ceiling and avoid default. “I also look forward to resuming my work on the Judiciary Committee considering the president’s judicial nominees,” she said.
Feinstein made the unusual request to be temporarily replaced on the panel after pressure from Democrats who are concerned about the judicial nominees and amid some calls for her resignation. Her office had not given a date for her return, creating a headache for Democrats who are hoping to use their majority to confirm as many of Biden’s judicial nominees as possible.
Republicans balked, saying they would not help Democrats confirm nominees who could not move without bipartisan support. Schumer declined to hold a vote on Feinstein's request after it became clear it would not pass.
She had asked for the replacement after Democratic Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., called on her to resign from the Senate, saying it was “unacceptable” for her to miss votes to confirm judges who could be weighing in on abortion rights, a key Democratic priority.
Feinstein has gradually stepped back from several senior positions in recent years. In 2020, she said she would not serve as the top Democrat on the judiciary panel after criticism from liberals about her handling of Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation. Earlier this year, she said she would not serve as the Senate president pro tempore, or the most senior member of the majority party, even though she was in line to do so. The president pro tempore opens the Senate every day and holds other ceremonial duties.
The long-serving California senator has had a trailblazing political career and shattered gender barriers. She was the first woman to serve as president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in the 1970s and the first female mayor of San Francisco. She ascended to that post after the November 1978 assassinations of then-Mayor George Moscone and City Supervisor Harvey Milk by a former supervisor, Dan White. Feinstein found Milk’s body.
In the Senate, she was the first woman to head the Senate Intelligence Committee and the first woman to serve as the Judiciary Committee’s top Democrat.