Sen. Dianne Feinstein has shrugged off a chorus of calls from within her party to step aside, arguing that her seniority and past achievements make her better qualified to represent California than a challenger decades her junior.
Now she’s going to have a chance to prove it.
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As the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee for the coming confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, Feinstein is about to take on a lead role in the biggest partisan battle of this election year. She’ll do so with a more progressive foe nipping at her heels back home — her general election opponent, state Sen. Kevin de León, overwhelmingly won the state party’s endorsement over the weekend — and a pair of rising-star Democrats on the committee, Kamala Harris and Cory Booker, setting a pugnacious tone for the confirmation clash.
The 85-year-old five-term senator remains unmoved in the face of pressure from California activists, touting her decades of experience in the trenches of Supreme Court politics.
“I don’t really feel that pressure” to give way to a younger generation, Feinstein told POLITICO in an interview. “I’m sure some people think that way, but I look at my vote, and there aren’t a lot of people that can win every county in the state.” She was referring to outperforming de León in all 58 California counties in the first round of voting in June.
The Supreme Court showdown arrives as both Feinstein and her party wrestle with insurgent forces on the left that want to see more gloves-off resistance to President Donald Trump’s agenda. It’s a tall order for a Democratic Caucus still reaching for the right mix of fight and collegiality, the recipe to undercut Trump in the chaotic news cycle he’s created while staying true to its DNA.
De León cast Feinstein as part of an old-school Democratic contingent that’s too deliberate and accommodating to meet the present moment.
“Republicans go to the jugular all the time. It’s time for Democrats to fight as hard for our values as conservatives fight for theirs,” de León said, suggesting that the party’s senators use their scant procedural power to slow down the chamber and put the screws to the GOP.
He pointed to Feinstein’s 2006 vote allowing Kavanaugh’s appeals court nomination to advance to a final vote to argue that she is too willing to compromise. Her opposition to a filibuster, de León said, was “a colossal error in judgment.”
A Feinstein spokeswoman noted that the senator “strongly opposed” Kavanaugh’s confirmation, and joined then-Sens. Barack Obama and Joe Biden in defusing a battle over the preservation of the 60-vote threshold for judicial nominees.
Feinstein is the oldest sitting senator, but even Democrats who question how she’ll fare in the intense grind of the Kavanaugh confirmation battle don’t wonder about her legislative acuity. It’s more, some say privately, that she won’t necessarily play the starring role in the Supreme Court fight that she has billed herself as prepared to assume.
To hear Feinstein tell it, “there’s no question” that other Democrats will get their time in the spotlight. While she’s making her seniority a core element of her reelection message, she said she’s eager to share with others in a Judiciary minority in which “we help one another and recognize one another.”
The Kavanaugh confirmation hearings present a particularly ripe breakthrough opportunity for Harris (D-Calif.) and Booker (D-N.J.), each a potential 2020 presidential hopeful. Feinstein is close to both of them, with Booker describing her as “a mentor to me” who cultivated his interest in criminal justice reform even before he joined the committee.
Harris and Booker are more native to the blistering pace of Trump-era political combat than Feinstein is. They’re on the vanguard of a liberal tilt in the Democratic party since Trump’s victory, a reorientation that’s nudged Feinstein in their direction on legal marijuana and expanding Medicare.
But inside the Capitol, it’s Feinstein in the lead on bipartisan immigration talks — she’s juggling that issue with the Supreme Court fight — while vowing to stay committed to gun control, which has galvanized her since she took over as San Francisco’s mayor after the 1978 assassinations of the mayor and a member of the board of supervisors.
And even as their center of gravity shifts leftward, Senate Democrats say they have confidence in her.
No one should “doubt her ferocity, her preparation, and her toughness when the moment comes,” Hawaii Sen. Brian Schatz said. “It’s just that she’s absolutely not the type of person who’s going to be the first to make a partisan statement. And she’s a person who does her research, however long that may take.”
“I recognize that being the ranking member on the Judiciary Committee for this confirmation hearing would be a challenge for any senator,” Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) said. “But I have no doubts about Sen. Feinstein’s ability to lead the Democrats on the committee through this process very ably.”
De León, however, isn’t shy about sowing doubts, even as he reiterates that his critique is unrelated to “gender or age.” Contending that the race is about “values and bold leadership” against Trump, he rapped Feinstein for voting to confirm “60 percent of“ Trump’s judicial picks.
Even so, this Supreme Court battle won’t be the first time this year Feinstein faces intense scrutiny from the left over a high-profile Trump nominee. De León and other progressives prodded her to oppose Gina Haspel after Feinstein rattled party activists with initial praise for the now-CIA director’s previous record.
Feinstein ultimately came out against Haspel on her own terms, after pushing the spy agency for the most fulsome disclosure possible about the nominee’s record. She’s making a similar push for maximum transparency about Kavanaugh, as she urges Republicans to work with her party on vetting Trump’s Supreme Court pick even with full-scale partisan warfare raging in the background.
“I really believe that we need to do our due diligence with this nominee more than at any [other] time,” she added. “And Justice [Elena] Kagan’s nomination sort of set a tone, because everybody worked together.”
Feinstein’s not alone in touting the disclosure of an estimated 170,000 Kagan-related documents to the Senate as a model for the Kavanaugh confirmation. But the Kagan nomination in mid-2010 was a lifetime ago by current Washington standards, and it remains to be seen whether Feinstein’s solid relationships with Judiciary Republicans can smooth the way to a deal on Kavanaugh records.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), whose relationship with Feinstein has weathered stresses over the investigation into Russian election meddling, has signaled a disinterest in Democratic requests that appear designed to delay the confirmation vote.
“When we hear arguments from the other side to slow down the process, we know the real reason: blocking Judge Kavanaugh’s confirmation by any means necessary,” Grassley said Thursday at a Judiciary panel meeting.
But Republican senators she may be called upon to tangle with during confirmation hearings offer warm words for Feinstein, underscoring the cross-aisle respect that’s made her more of a natural deal-maker than partisan bomb-thrower.
“I don’t agree with her on a lot of things, but when she talks, I listen,” Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) said. Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) called her a “wonderful lady,” shrugging at her challenge from the left by observing that she “has a way of rising above all that.”
Cornyn then shared a favorite recent memory of Feinstein that underscores the elder-stateswoman persona de León is seeking to turn against her.
One day before Republican Sen. John McCain returned to Arizona for cancer treatment, Cornyn recalled, Feinstein walked into a Senate elevator. McCain, a lion of the chamber himself, “greeted her as, ‘Your majesty.’”