Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California stepped aside as the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday, opening the high-profile role for a more aggressive or partisan approach as the Senate moves on from President Donald Trump’s administration.
Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois has an interest in the job, and said he will seek that role with an eye for oversight of actions that were taken taken by the outgoing Trump administration and a to-do list for "future progress of our country." He would also keep his position in Senate Democratic leadership. The next Democrat in line after Durbin is Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island.
“I have served on the Committee for 22 years, and I am its most senior member who does not currently serve atop another Senate Committee,” Durbin said. “We have to roll up our sleeves and get to work on undoing the damage of the last four years and protecting fundamental civil and human rights.”
The Judiciary Committee spot would be chairman or ranking member, depending on which party controls the Senate after the runoff elections to fill Georgia’s two Senate seats on Jan. 5.
With Biden in the White House, the committee will play a critical role vetting nominees for the federal courts and key Justice Department jobs.
It would also be the path for legislation on gun control, immigration, voting rights and other Democratic priorities.
In a news release, Feinstein mentioned climate issues facing her home state of California, as well as defeating COVID-19 and protecting access to health care, which she called “critical national priorities that require even more concentration.”
“California is a huge state confronting two existential threats — wildfire and drought — that are only getting worse with climate change,” Feinstein said in the release. “I look forward to continuing to serve as a senior Democrat on the Judiciary, Intelligence, Appropriations and Rules committees as we work with the Biden administration on priorities like gun safety, immigration reform and addressing inequities in criminal justice,” Feinstein said. “I will continue to do my utmost to bring about positive change in the coming years.”
But the move comes as grassroots advocacy groups called for a change in Democratic leadership on the committee in the wake of the confirmation fight over Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett in October.
Barrett was Trump’s third Supreme Court appointment, who solidified a 6-3 conservative tilt that is expected to shift the legal ground on major issues such as abortion. Democrats repeatedly criticized Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Republicans for their actions to fill those high court seats.
Senate Democratic leaders and outside groups maintained that Barrett’s nomination was jammed through inappropriately so close to the presidential election. Yet Feinstein praised Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham of South Carolina for the way the hearings were conducted and gave him a hug at the conclusion of the proceedings.
Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, was among the leaders of outside groups calling for the Democrats to appoint a new Democratic leader of the committee.
So did groups such as Demand Justice, which focuses on judicial nominations and called for structural changes in the Supreme Court to address the past four years of Trump appointees, and Fix Our Senate, which advocates eliminating the legislative filibuster.
Brian Fallon, executive director of Demand Justice, said new committee leadership was necessary for Democrats “to meaningfully confront the damage Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell have done to the federal judiciary.”
“Going forward, Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee must be led by someone who will not wishfully cling to a bygone era of civility and decorum that Republicans abandoned long ago,” Fallon said in a release. “The next top Democrat on the committee must be someone who is willing to fight for President-elect Biden's nominees no matter what, and who will pursue bold action to restore balance to our courts.”
Feinstein and Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois were the first women to serve on the Judiciary Committee, following the highly contentious confirmation hearings for Justice Clarence Thomas in 1991 that featured Anita Hill’s sexual harassment accusations against Thomas.
Feinstein, a former San Francisco mayor, was elected to the Senate in 1992 — dubbed the Year of the Woman because a then-unprecedented four women were elected to the Senate that year.
Feinstein is also one of the Democratic Party’s most prominent advocates for gun control and a key voice on policy about the ability of the government’s national security agencies to collect information.
The Californian gave up the ranking member role on the Senate Intelligence Committee to take the Judiciary spot.
Chris Cioffi contributed to this report.