Feinstein reportedly spoke to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer on Sunday and assured him she’d return to work soon, but her office hasn’t indicated exactly when she’ll be strong enough to fly back to Washington, D.C.
In recent weeks, Feinstein’s D.C. office has also lost several key members, including her chief of staff, David Grannis, who left to become executive director of the Commission on the National Defense Strategy.
Shortly before her departure in February, Feinstein, who is California’s longest-serving senator, announced she would not run for reelection next year, but plans to remain in office through the end of her term.
Last week, amid mounting pressure for her to return, Feinstein asked Schumer to appoint another Democrat to temporarily replace her on the committee. Ordinarily that would be fairly routine, but apparently it’s not in this case, where a key Democratic goal of confirming more judges hangs in the balance.
“The Senate is very arcane in terms of its procedures,” said Carl Tobias, professor at the University of Richmond School of Law. “And it turns out that one senator can block that type of request unless you have 60 votes for cloture (a process for ending debate) to pass a resolution that allows something like that replacement to happen.”
Tobias says the issue could also be resolved if a Republican member of the committee were to vote in favor of the judicial nominees, which would break any deadlock in Feinstein’s absence.
“And they’re not controversial,” Tobias said of the dozen nominees now awaiting a committee vote. “There weren’t any problems with them from the Republican side I think even in committee, when they had the hearings.”
One possible yes vote, Tobias notes, could come from South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, the ranking Republican on the committee, whom Tobias calls “an institutionalist.”
“I think he was saying nice things about Sen. Feinstein and has a good relationship with her,” Tobias said. “And so it could all work out well without dragging on for a long time yet.”