WASHINGTON – California Sen. Dianne Feinstein said Monday she will step down from her role as the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, giving up the powerful spot after public criticism of her bipartisan outreach and her handling of Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett's confirmation hearings.
Feinstein, 87, said in a statement that she would not seek the position in the next Congress. She did not say why, but said she would instead focus on wildfire and drought issues and the effects of climate change, which are important in her home state. She plans to continue to serve on the Judiciary, Appropriations and intelligence panels, but said she will not seek the role of top Democrat on any of those committees.
“I will continue to do my utmost to bring about positive change in the coming years,” she said in the statement. She has held the Judiciary post since 2017.
Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, the Senate’s No. 2 Democrat, said he will seek to replace Feinstein as the committee's top Democrat. He is third in seniority on the panel, after Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, who is currently the top Democrat on the appropriations committee.
Durbin organized the Democratic response during the Barrett hearings, coordinating an effort to focus the criticism on the court's upcoming consideration of the health care law and away from the nominee personally. He led daily news conferences during breaks in the hearings with the other Democrats on the panel while Feinstein usually did not appear.
“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,” Durbin said in a statement.
Durbin's office has said there is nothing in Democratic caucus rules that blocks him form serving in his leadership post and also as the top Democrat on Judiciary.
Feinstein, first elected in 1992, has been a powerful force in the Democratic Party and is the former chairwoman of the intelligence panel. She has not shied from bipartisanship even as her state has become increasingly liberal and both parties have become more polarized.
That tension came to a head at the Barrett hearings, when Feinstein closed out the proceedings with an embrace for Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and a public thanks to Graham for a job well done. Democrats fiercely opposed Barrett's nomination to replace the late liberal icon Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
“This has been one of the best set of hearings that I’ve participated in,” Feinstein said at the end of the hearing.
Those actions put her immediately in the crosshairs of some influential liberals who had been questioning for some time whether she was right for the job.
“It’s time for Sen. Feinstein to step down from her leadership position on the Senate Judiciary Committee,” said Brian Fallon, the executive director of Demand Justice, which opposes conservative nominees to the courts. “If she won’t, her colleagues need to intervene.”
Feinstein also irked some of her fellow Democrats at Barrett's first confirmation hearing, in 2017 for an appeals court, when she said that Barrett’s opposition to abortion must be rooted in her religion and questioned if it would influence her rulings on the bench, saying the “dogma lives loudly within you.”
Republicans seized on the phrase, saying it was offensive to Catholics. The backlash helped Barrett rise in the ranks of Supreme Court hopefuls.
Graham also seized on Feinstein's complimentary words at the end of Barrett's hearings, frequently repeating them on the campaign trail in his reelection bid this year and using the backlash to disparage Democrats.
“I hate the fact that saying something nice about me, about the way I conducted the hearings, has gotten to the point now that people will drive you out of office,” Graham said.
In a statement, Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said he was “grateful for Senator Feinstein’s leadership and contributions to our caucus and country" in the Judiciary post.
Feinstein’s “experience, decades-long relationship with President-elect Biden, and leadership on so many issues will continue to be an asset for our caucus, California, and the country as we begin a new term with the new president,” said Schumer, D-N.Y.
It is still unclear which party will hold the majority in the Senate next year. If Democrats win two runoff elections in Georgia, they could take the Senate very narrowly.
Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley is expected to reclaim the top Republican spot on the panel next session after leaving for two years to head the Senate Finance Committee.
Associated Press writer Meg Kinnard in Columbia, S.C., contributed to this report.