Plenty of Democratic lawmakers don't think Dianne Feinstein's up to the job. They're just hesitant to say it publicly.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein at a hearing on Capitol Hill on May 11, 2023.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein at a hearing on Capitol Hill on May 11, 2023.Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
  • Only a handful of Democratic lawmakers have publicly called for Dianne Feinstein's resignation.

  • But those who've done so insist that most of their colleagues agree with them.

  • "The overwhelming assessment of a lot of House members is that she should resign," said one House Dem.

Despite Sen. Dianne Feinstein's return to the Capitol this month after a months-long absence, questions have continued to swirl around her ability to serve.

Visibly diminished due to complications from a shingles infection, the 89-year-old California Democrat has continued to miss several votes and has publicly displayed grave signs of memory loss and cognitive decline since her return on May 10.

According to a Berkeley IGS poll released Thursday, 67% of Californians now believe she is no longer fit to serve. Yet none of Feinstein's Senate colleagues have gone as far as to explicitly call for her resignation.

By contrast, a handful of House Democrats have shown a willingness to do so, beginning with Rep. Ro Khanna of California in early April.

"I think if you're a member, and you become a shadow of your former self, you should resign," Rep. Ritchie Torres of New York told Insider this week, publicly calling for the California Democrat's resignation for the first time. "Once you're no longer the best person to represent your state, you have a duty to move on."

But many others have continued to hold their tongues on the matter — even as those who've spoken up on the topic insist they're not alone.

"I'm disappointed that so many people who share the same sentiment in private conversations are simply unwilling to share them publicly," said Rep. Dean Phillips of Minnesota, who said this week that Feinstein is "clearly losing mental acuity" as he reiterated his call for her resignation. "There's political cost to speaking the truth, and frankly, political reward for staying quiet. And that's what we call perverse incentives."

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, who said her position that Feinstein should retire was "pretty widely" held by her colleagues in private, pointed to recent accusations of sexism by some Democratic female senators as a likely factor in motivating lawmakers to stay quiet.

"There's an immediate consequence and blowback," said Ocasio-Cortez, adding: "It's not sexist in any way, shape, or form to ask and expect your member of Congress to be able to do their job."

In interviews with Insider on Capitol Hill this week, some House Democrats privately said they believed Feinstein was no longer fit to do her job. But they remained hesitant to say so on the record due to angst about the impact of speaking out and a sense that it's not their call to make.

"It's a very delicate matter," said one House Democrat granted anonymity to speak freely about the matter. "But across the board, the overwhelming assessment of a lot of House members is that she should resign."

That House Democrat said she also believed Feinstein should resign, but argued that speaking out would have little impact on Feinstein's decision-making, given that she's a "random House member that has maybe passed her in the hall one time."

She also worries speaking out could make a devastating situation even worse.

"It's so sad. It's so tragic. Here is an unbelievably incredible woman whose legacy will be this," she said, referring to the ongoing public spectacle of Feinstein's declining health. "Out of respect for her humanity, I don't want to be out there saying she should retire, but I just think it's stunning that she hasn't."

Another House Democrat said that it "sounds like she's having a lot of trouble doing the job" and that "if she's gonna keep doing the job, she should be able to do the job," but stressed that he's enmeshed in other issues and sees little reason for him to get publicly involved.

"I don't think that anybody on the Senate side is gonna be making a decision based on what I think," he added.

But Phillips rejected that idea, arguing that Feinstein's health is "everybody's business" while explicitly comparing the situation to how many Republicans handled Donald Trump's presidency.

"I'm someone who criticized my Republican colleagues for four years during the Trump era for their reluctance to simply speak the truth, which they shared everyday with me privately," said Phillips. "So here I am, in a position to speak my truth."

Feinstein's office did not respond to Insider's request for comment for this story.

'I've never interacted with Senator Feinstein'

The awkward shimmying around the question of Feinstein's health has been ongoing for some time.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer notably declined to say over a year ago whether he had confidence in Feinstein's ability to do her job following a report from the San Francisco Chronicle that called her cognitive abilities and memory into question. More recently, he reportedly told Feinstein to listen to the advice of her doctors amid her lengthy absence, planning for her return to Washington only after it became clear that she would not entertain the idea of resigning.

Since returning, Feinstein has suffered from partial facial paralysis due to a case of encephalitis, a complication of her shingles infection. She appeared to insist to reporters last week that she had not been absent from the Senate, and staff and Capitol Police have since reportedly worked to restrict press access to the senator.

But for California Democrats, there's a tacit acknowledgment that the details of Feinstein's physical condition may not matter much as long as she's physically present for crucial votes and can show up to vote when needed to advance nominees out of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

"She's working. She's voting. She's here," said Rep. Eric Swalwell of California. "That's what's most important."

One House Democrat from California, granted anonymity to speak freely, said the questions of whether Feinstein should stay or go was "moot" because, he argued, Republicans would not replace her on the committee if she retired.

"We need her vote. Without her vote, we don't get judges confirmed," said the House Democrat. "We may not get her on every vote, but we certainly need her in committee to provide that majority vote to move nominations out of committee."

(While Republican senators did block an attempt to temporarily give her committee seat to Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, some of them indicated that they wouldn't necessarily do the same thing if she retired.)

Furthermore, Feinstein's office continues to function largely as normal — and the seniority system incentivizes her staff and California delegation members to keep her in place.

"I've never interacted with Senator Feinstein," said Rep. Jimmy Gomez, who's represented a Los Angeles-area district for nearly six years. "I've read the stories, but I don't really know how diminished she is."

"My experience with her office is that it's still a highly functioning office," said Gomez, who said Feinstein's staff helped him get his used EV tax credit into the Inflation Reduction Act last year. "I'd be more concerned if her staff were jumping ship."

"She's senior, and I think that's valuable to the state," said Rep. Scott Peters of California. "So I'm hoping that she feels well enough to hang in there."

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