WASHINGTON — Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the minority leader, on Tuesday said that he and other Republicans would not allow Democrats to temporarily replace the ailing Senator Dianne Feinstein of California on the Judiciary Committee, raising new questions about how her party will be able to move forward with Senate work without her.
Pressure is mounting for Ms. Feinstein, 89, who was hospitalized with shingles in February and has announced she will not seek re-election in 2024, to resign now. Her prolonged absence means Democrats will be unable to advance President Biden’s judicial nominees and could be short of a vote on other crucial matters, including action expected to be needed in the coming months to raise the debt ceiling to avert a catastrophic default.
Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and the majority leader, said later Tuesday that he still planned to move forward with a request to replace Ms. Feinstein temporarily with Senator Benjamin L. Cardin of Maryland. But the move would take the unanimous consent of the Senate — or at least 60 votes — and Mr. McConnell made it clear that would not happen.
“Senate Republicans will not take part in sidelining a temporarily absent colleague off a committee just so Democrats can force through their very worst nominees,” Mr. McConnell told reporters. The sentiment was echoed throughout the Republican conference.
It was the latest indication of how polarized the chamber, and particularly the issue of judicial nominees, has become.
A Divided Congress
Responding to pressure from members of her own party to resign, Ms. Feinstein said last week she would not do so. Instead, she requested a temporary replacement on the panel, offering no timeline for her return.
“I spoke to Senator Feinstein just last Friday,” Mr. Schumer said. “She and I are very hopeful she’ll return soon.”
As lawmakers trickled back to the Capitol after a two-week recess, Democrats pleaded for Republicans to show compassion to a colleague some of them have served with for decades.
Senator Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois and chairman of the Judiciary Committee, tried to appeal to a sense of decorum that once prevailed in the Senate, particularly when it came to matters of age or infirmity.
“It just boils down to this,” Mr. Durbin said. “Tomorrow this could happen to the Republicans, and they could find themselves in a vulnerable position through no fault of their own. I hope that they’ll show a little kindness and caring for their colleague.”
Faced with a situation in which there were no good options, some Democrats viewed the stalemate as a way to coax Ms. Feinstein to consider her next steps.
“If this goes on month after month after month, then she’s going to have to make a decision with her family and her friends about what her future holds,” Senator Amy Klobuchar, Democrat of Minnesota, said on ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday. Ms. Klobuchar also said that she was taking Ms. Feinstein at her word that she would be back soon. “This isn’t just about California. It’s also about the nation.”
Adding to the growing pressure on Ms. Feinstein is that in a moment of divided government, with Republicans in control of the House, judicial nominations are among the only things Senate Democrats can do on their own.
“The situation of just letting the nominations stall endlessly is not tenable,” said Brian Fallon, the executive director of the progressive advocacy group Demand Justice. “The conversation needs to be shifted to what can be done now. That concern hasn’t gone away, and this option isn’t going to solve it.”
Mr. Fallon said Democrats should increase the pressure on Republicans, including by trying to change filibuster rules to allow the replacement to be made unilaterally.
He said Democrats could also threaten to do away with blue slips, an informal Senate practice that allows a senator to block the nomination of a judge from his or her home state.
“Just raising the specter of it might cause the Republicans to think twice,” Mr. Fallon said. “Republicans didn’t even contemplate trying to meet the Democrats halfway because they don’t fear any reprisal.”
On Tuesday, when asked about doing away with blue slips, Mr. Schumer said that “Senator Durbin and the Judiciary are considering it.”
Questions about Ms. Feinstein’s ability to perform her job have dogged her for years and were prevalent even in 2018, when she decided to seek re-election. She has never been open to talk of resigning, even as some close to her have tried to urge her to engineer a graceful exit to safeguard her legacy as a pioneering woman in politics. Instead, she has slowly diminished her profile in the Senate, often begrudgingly.
In 2020, Ms. Feinstein agreed to relinquish the top Democratic spot on the Judiciary Committee amid pressure from progressives who said she was not up to the task of leading a crucial panel at the forefront of the partisan war over the courts in a new Biden administration.
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