Feinstein fall gives Democrats a scare

Senate Democrats got a scare last week when Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) was briefly admitted to the hospital after a fall at her home, underscoring the slim margins the party has when they return to Washington after Labor Day with an ambitious agenda on deck. 

Feinstein’s office said she was admitted and released from the hospital within a couple of hours and that the visit was “precautionary.” Still, it comes after the 90-year-old Senate stalwart has fended off questions about whether she should remain in office since a lengthy absence earlier this year for a bout of shingles. 

And it comes as Democrats prepare for a key stretch next month headlined by a push to fund the government and — more acutely for Feinstein given her committee work — the Senate Judiciary Committee’s work to advance more judicial nominations and pass a Supreme Court ethics package.

“I think she’s been a great colleague for a long time, and I think she’s been very brave about coming in and continuing to work, particularly on the Judiciary Committee,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), a panel member, told reporters on Friday. 

Whitehouse noted her work has kept up “with everybody knowing full well” her being sidelined on the panel for whatever reason gives Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) the “prerogative” to withhold the party’s majority on Judiciary. 

“And the notion that he wouldn’t do that is fantastical,” Whitehouse added. 

Perhaps the most pressing upcoming concern is that Democrats will need every vote they can get — including Feinstein’s — to pass spending bills to fund the government and avoid a shutdown.

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) told reporters this week he expects lawmakers will need to pass a continuing resolution to keep the government’s lights on while they hammer out appropriations bills in the coming months for fiscal 2024. That will require Democrats to appeal to Republicans to secure the requisite 60 votes, even with every Democrat present.

“Attendance is always going to be important,” one Senate Democratic aide said, adding that Feinstein is not alone in missing votes for significant stretches. “She needs to be here, but so does everyone else.”

Feinstein has been under the microscope for months since her return to Washington in early May. She has needed the use of a wheelchair to get around the Capitol complex since then and has at moments appeared confused, in one case delivering a speech instead of casting a vote during a Senate Appropriations Committee markup. (A spokesperson chalked it up to a “chaotic” stretch of the meeting.)

However, after keeping a lighter schedule in the weeks immediately after returning to work, she has been reliable for the party. Feinstein hasn’t missed a vote since June 1 and has been walking on her own around the office and at home, according to her office. 

Part of that stretch included a vote to advance a bill aimed at boosting ethics requirements for Supreme Court justices shortly before the August recess, which will be top of mind for Democrats next month. 

That push got some weight behind it on Thursday, when ProPublica reported Justice Clarence Thomas accepted more vacations and gifts from billionaire benefactors than had been reported previously. According to the investigative outlet, the longest-tenured justice on the Court received at least 38 vacations, 26 flights aboard private jets, eight flights by helicopter, a dozen VIP passes to sporting events and hospitality at luxury resorts. 

“The latest ProPublica revelation of unreported lavish gifts to Justice Clarence Thomas makes it clear: these are not merely ethical lapses. This is a shameless lifestyle underwritten for years by a gaggle of fawning billionaires,” Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said in a statement. 

The proposal by Durbin and Whitehouse would require justices to adopt a new code of conduct and create a transparent process for individuals to submit ethics complaints against justices, among other things. 

While the bill will not receive the requisite 60 votes to pass, Democrats will want the strongest possible showing to tout as they head into an election year.

Whitehouse said a vote during the September session is “under discussion” but added he doesn’t have a firm commitment on that end from leadership. 

“I feel very good about where we are, but I don’t have a commitment with a date,” Whitehouse said.

Republicans have defended Thomas and Alito consistently amid the string of reports of gifts received by the pair. 

Feinstein is also needed in Washington for Democrats to advance judicial nominations, a topic that became a loud one during her absence earlier this year as the party was unable to move forward on several partisan nominees before the Judiciary Committee. 

“The best thing for Feinstein to do for herself is to step back — the best thing she can do for the country is to keep voting for President Biden’s judges,” Christine Pelosi, the daughter of former Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), wrote on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, in response to a political writer this week following Feinstein’s fall. 

“It’s HER choice,” said Pelosi, whose mother has been a staunch ally of the former San Francisco mayor. “Dianne Feinstein and all Democratic Senators know the stakes. … I respect her agency, her choice, and the judges she’s elevating.”

Tags Clarence Thomas Sheldon Whitehouse