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Sen. Feinstein facing calls to resign after missing dozens of votes due to illness

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

California Senator Dianne Feinstein says she will step back, but not down.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Feinstein is asking to temporarily drop one of her most important jobs in the Senate. She is part of the Judiciary Committee, which has been confirming judges appointed by President Biden. She hasn't been able to do that job recently due to illness. She has also missed dozens of Senate votes this year, prompting some fellow Democrats to say the 89-year-old should resign. She has a bit less than two years left in her term.

FADEL: NPR's congressional correspondent Claudia Grisales is with us for more. Let's start with the senator's extended leave from the Senate. How did this all start?

CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: Right. The senator said last night she was diagnosed with a case of shingles that she thought would allow her to return to Washington by the end of last month. But she's had complications, and, as a result, she's missed most of this year's votes in the Senate - a little more than a month - and we do not know when she'll return.

FADEL: And now she's facing increased calls from Democrats for her resignation. What's next for this seat?

GRISALES: Right. She already announced she would not run for reelection in 2024. With that, she said she planned to finish her final two years strong following this 30-plus-year career in the Senate. For now, she's defending this absence, saying she'll return as soon as her medical team says it's safe. But she's not signaling she has any plans to step down early, which puts a key seat in a narrow Senate Democratic majority in limbo.

FADEL: Now, Feinstein is facing all of this criticism, in part because she sits on an important committee. The Senate Judiciary Committee, in her absence, has held up the panel's work it appears. So she's asking to be temporarily relieved from that committee. What does that mean?

GRISALES: So she said in her statement she understands these concerns tied to the Judiciary Committee. And she's asked Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to allow another Democratic senator to serve on that panel instead. Schumer's office said he'll agree to the request and he'll ask the Senate, when they return next week, to replace her temporarily. And this is critical because the panel, which is led by Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, who took over this role from Feinstein, has a long to-do list. This includes plans to confirm more judges and a hearing on new ethical questions surrounding the Supreme Court after a report that Justice Clarence Thomas accepted gifts of travel from a wealthy GOP donor, plus questions over whether the panel could play a role in this new national fight over access to the abortion drug.

FADEL: Will these moves appease her critics?

GRISALES: That's hard to say. We're seeing some now openly call for her resignation. This was largely led by California Democrat Ro Khanna last night. Before Feinstein issued her statement on this extended absence, Khanna said it was time for her resignation and it's, quote, "time to put country ahead of personal loyalty."

FADEL: Right. This is clearly exposing divisiveness, an ugly fight for Democrats.

GRISALES: Yes, Khanna said that while Feinstein has had, quote, "a lifetime of public service," it's obvious she can no longer fulfill her duties and that not speaking out undermines his and other members' credibility. So far, at least one other House Democrat, Dean Phillips of Minnesota, has echoed this, saying it's a dereliction of duty for Feinstein to remain in the Senate under these conditions and for others not to speak out about it. And we should note, if Feinstein were to step down early, that would give the California governor a chance to shake up an already very competitive race for her seat by installing his own appointee ahead of the 2024 election.

FADEL: NPR's Claudia Grisales, thank you so much.

GRISALES: Thank you much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Claudia Grisales is a congressional reporter assigned to NPR's Washington Desk.