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As the longest-serving U.S. Senator takes a break, another Dem wants her out for good

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

We are also following today's news on one of the most powerful committees on Capitol Hill. Senator Dianne Feinstein of California has asked her colleagues to temporarily replace her on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Its due to health complications. She hasn't cast a vote since mid-February, and she's had a tough time recovering from shingles since last month. But some of Feinstein's Democratic colleagues in Congress want her to step down for good immediately. One of the most vocal people on that front is Congressman Ro Khanna, also of California. In a tweet, he called for Feinstein's resignation as a matter of putting, quote, "country ahead of personal loyalty." Congressman Ro Khanna joins me now. Welcome.

RO KHANNA: Thank you for having me.

SUMMERS: So, Congressman, Senator Feinstein has already said that she plans to retire when her term ends in 2024. And I know, like many of your colleagues, you appreciate her. And you've celebrated her many years of public service. So tell us, why is it so important to you that she step aside now?

KHANNA: Well, she has been a trailblazer and icon to many women, but that's precisely why I hope she will make the decision to resign right now. Senator Durbin has said that our judges are not going through. She's been missing on the committee. She's been missing votes. Now, after I called on her to resign and a colleague of mine echoed that, she did make the statement that she would remove herself from the Judiciary Committee. That is a constructive step. The problem is, as you know, that requires 60 votes in the Senate. And it's unclear to us, to me, whether the Republicans would even go for that.

SUMMERS: When you called on Senator Feinstein to resign, you did it very publicly. As we noted, you did it in a tweet. I am curious, have you spoken with your colleague privately to encourage her to do so? And did you speak to her before you tweeted that?

KHANNA: Well, I have not spoken to Senator Feinstein for four years. She doesn't show up to any of the California lunches. She doesn't engage. I mean, it's sort of an open secret in Washington. I would have loved to have spoken to her, but that's partly the challenge. And I think all I said is what people know privately - that California has basically had an absentee senator.

SUMMERS: I want to push you on that. I assume you could have reached out to her office or picked up the phone and called her. Did you do that?

KHANNA: We did not. But I don't think that is necessary given that we've reached out before and haven't been able to get meetings. And the other point is that my obligation is to the people of California and to speak out for what the individuals in California want. And I don't know any other job in America where you can't show up for months, you don't tell people when you're going to show up, you've been sort of absent for a year or two and there are no consequences.

SUMMERS: I want to go back to the matter of the judiciary committee. As you pointed out, hours after you called on Senator Feinstein to resign, she did announce that she will temporarily give up her seat on judiciary. You and I follow the matters of Washington very closely, many people listening to our conversation likely do not. So I'm hoping you can just explain the importance of this committee and why the continued absence of one senator has the power to make such a big difference.

KHANNA: Well, Senator Durbin - Dick Durbin from Illinois - who chairs the judiciary committee, said publicly that one of the reasons that the president's judges aren't getting confirmed is Senator Feinstein's absence. The Senate is so closely divided that if we don't have a Democrat on that committee, the judicial nominations can't clear that committee and can't get a vote for confirmation on the Senate. When you have extremist judges in Texas taking away women's rights, taking away the right to have FDA-approved medicine, then we have a crisis in this country. And we need to get as many judges who actually believe in reproductive rights, who believe in equality, who believe in the Constitution confirmed. And that's slowing the matter down. And that's why I'm hopeful that Senator Feinstein herself will see that and make the decision to resign.

SUMMERS: I want to ask you about something another Californian has said. Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, still serving in Congress, has suggested to reporters yesterday that sexism could be at play here. She said, and I'm paraphrasing, that a male senator who was ill would not be treated in the same manner. She also went on to suggest that there may be political agendas at work. How do you respond to that?

KHANNA: Well, she made those comments before my tweet, but I have tremendous respect for the Speaker Pelosi. And I guess I would just say that whether it's a man or a woman, if someone is not able to fulfill their duties, then they should step aside.

SUMMERS: I want to ask you for a moment about Senator Feinstein's legacy, which you've alluded to several times in this conversation. I mean, she is, as you note, the longest-serving woman in this body. Given that long career, given that history, do you believe that she is owed some grace from her colleagues to be able to make this decision to depart the Senate on her own terms?

KHANNA: I believe she is owed respect. I believe her legacy should be celebrated. But ultimately, what I care most about is not any one individual. I care about the American people, and I care about the state of California. And I don't think that someone, no matter how remarkable their achievements, can be absent in their role, especially in this moment where we need an active senator to get the president's judges confirmed, when we need a senator from California pushing back against the transphobia, the gay phobia that we've been hearing. And that's why I hope that we will have someone in that role.

SUMMERS: Democratic Congressman Ro Khanna, thank you so much.

KHANNA: Thank you.

SUMMERS: And we reached out to Senator Feinstein's office. They tell NPR that, outside of her illness this year, the senator has not missed any significant amount of time from work previously. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Megan Lim
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.
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.