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Feinstein's absence is highlighting a divide in the Democratic Party

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Today it remains unclear when California Senator Dianne Feinstein will return to Washington. She has not voted since February because of complications from shingles. But plenty of her fellow California Democrats are wondering if their 89-year-old-senator will be back. While she's asked to be temporarily replaced on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Democrats have a thin 51-49 majority in the Senate, and some are calling for her to step down from Congress entirely.

RO KHANNA: All I said is what people know privately, that California has basically had an absentee senator.

SUMMERS: California Congressman Ro Khanna is one of those voices, and he spoke with our show yesterday. For more, let's bring in Christopher Cadelago. He's Politico's White House correspondent based in Sacramento. Hey.

CHRISTOPHER CADELAGO: Hey. How are you?

SUMMERS: I am well. OK, Chris, so when I spoke with Congressman Khanna yesterday, he implied that in calling for Senator Feinstein to step down, he was essentially just saying publicly what a lot of folks on Capitol Hill are saying and thinking privately. So I'm curious. What are you hearing from other members of Congress and particularly her colleagues in the California delegation?

CADELAGO: I think it's really a mix. There are several members who do want to give her a little bit more time to recover here to see if she can get back and vote consistently in D.C., and if she can, they will definitely support her. We had a story talking with some of her confidants, and this was earlier in the week. And their point was that this had clearly kind of taken a turn, these shingles, and it did not appear to them like they could confidently say she would get back. For all their kind of respect and loyalty for Senator Feinstein, they understand for the real-world implications.

SUMMERS: Based on those conversations that you and your colleagues have been having with Senator Feinstein's confidants, those close to her who know her well and her past history, for that matter, do you get the sense that she would even entertain the idea of voluntarily resigning early?

CADELAGO: One of the traits of Senator Feinstein over the course of her long career has been, you know, a real kind of stubbornness. And that's been something that's carried her in very difficult times. And I think, you know, you're seeing that here, too. Some of these calls are very similar to what we saw in 2017, when she was deciding whether to run for reelection in 2018. And you had folks like Ro Khanna at the time who thought that she should step aside. So there are folks on the progressive wing, folks who feel like she has kind of fallen out of step with the politics of the state. So this is the latest example they're giving now with her health for why she should step down early.

SUMMERS: So if Senator Feinstein does resign or if health reasons prove insurmountable, that means there's an open Senate seat that's up to Governor Gavin Newsom to appoint an interim senator. And then, of course, you've already got candidates in the race running to replace Senator Feinstein, who has said that she plans to retire in 2024. Let's start with the potential of Newsom having to appoint a replacement. Any likely frontrunners?

CADELAGO: Well, Newsom, let's go back to 2020. Newsom had the other seat in California when Vice President Kamala Harris became vice president, and he appointed Senator Alex Padilla, which was historic in its own right, giving the state a Latino senator. But he also made a very important promise at the time to appoint a Black woman to the other Senate seat should it come up. You know, the big question, I think, for him starting out is, does he want to, as best as he can tell, appoint someone who's going to be seen more as a caretaker for this seat? Which would allow him potentially to stay out of the race that's going on between members of Congress - Barbara Lee, Adam Schiff and Katie Porter. He could also very much disrupt this race by appointing Barbara Lee to the Senate seat. She would then be running as a member of the Senate, which could give her a big leg up.

SUMMERS: Politico's Christopher Cadelago. Thank you.

CADELAGO: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Kai McNamee
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.

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