Gillibrand’s Weak Defense

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Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) took to the airwaves yesterday in defense of Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), arguing that it’s up to Feinstein to decide if and when she leaves office before the end of her term. Gillibrand says that many other senators have had serious illnesses that have kept them away from the Senate. “They all deserve a chance to get better and come back to work. Dianne will get better. She will come back to work.”

This is not a strong or good argument.

It’s certainly true that senators, most of whom are over 65, have had health problems that take them away from the Senate. They’re not pressured to leave office in the way Feinstein is being pressured.

But Feinstein’s case is very different.

First, the Democrats have a 51-seat majority. Every day she’s absent makes confirming judges significantly harder. That is especially because she is not only one vote in the Senate. She’s also a critical vote on the Judiciary committee. Without her present, Democrats need at least one Republican vote to advance nominees to the floor. Given GOP control in the House, confirming judges is the main thing the Senate is doing now. Every day she’s away is a big deal and she’s been away since February. Feinstein has asked that she be temporarily replaced on the Judiciary Committee. But Republicans have the power to block that move and almost certainly will do so.

Feinstein has already been absent from the Senate since February, an extremely long absence, and she has not been able to given any timeline for her return.

Second, this isn’t a matter of cutting short a Senate career over one illness. Feinstein has already announced she’s not running for reelection. So this would only be ending her Senate career about 18 months ahead of schedule. This is quite different from the time Sen. Ben Ray Luján (D) of New Mexico, then age 49, was absent from the Senate after suffering a stroke in early 2022. He’s at the start of his Senate career and there’s every reason to think voters might return him to office for decades into the future. He’s 39 years younger than Feinstein. Similar facts apply to Sen. John Fetterman (D-PA) and his recent absence for treatment of clinical depression. The facts are just totally different.

Third — really the elephant in the room — while we have no formal diagnoses, there is quite a lot of evidence that Feinstein is no longer truly capable of carrying out her Senate functions. There appears to be almost universal agreement that she’s suffered a precipitous cognitive and physical decline in recent years. If she were present in the Senate it’s likely that staff and colleagues could pick up the slack and cover for her. But that’s not the case.

Taken together, these three facts make Feinstein’s situation categorically different even from senators who have had to take lengthy time away from the Senate to recover from illness. There’s simply no argument for her remaining in office beyond personal pride and the awkwardness of the situation for those around her.

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