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Feinstein's absence allows Republican emissions measure to pass Senate by single vote

The 89-year-old California senator has been absent with health issues since February.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein on an elevator.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein boards an elevator following a vote in the U.S. Capitol on Feb. 14. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The continued absence of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., allowed the Senate to pass a repeal of a White House antipollution measure, reigniting calls for her to resign.

On Wednesday, the Senate voted 50-49 — with all Republicans joined by Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. — to overturn a rule from President Biden limiting emissions from heavy-duty trucks. The White House has said the president will veto the measure, but the vote is another indication of the challenges created for Democrats by the 89-year-old Feinstein’s absence, which began in February when she was hospitalized for shingles.

“Because Senator Feinstein was absent, the Senate overturned a Biden rule that would cut pollution from heavy duty trucks and causes harm to people’s lungs,” wrote Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., on Twitter. “We are putting decorum over democracy and our values. It’s time for Senator Feinstein to step down gracefully.”

While the fact that Feinstein missed the vote likely won’t determine the fate of the emissions rule, it has led to gridlock on the Senate Judiciary Committee, on which she sits. With Republicans united against all of Biden’s judicial nominees, the committee has not held a vote on one since Feb. 16. The committee also can’t subpoena Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas over recent ethics concerns without Feinstein’s vote.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein.
Feinstein in the U.S. Capitol subway on Feb. 15. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images)

Chairman Dick Durbin, D-Ill., told NBC News on Sunday that he hasn’t spoken with Feinstein in several weeks but that Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer had.

“I want her to come back, too, but her future is in her own hands and her family’s consultations,” Durbin said, noting that he didn’t have regrets about keeping Feinstein on the committee despite known issues with her health coming into the year.

Feinstein has announced she won’t be running for reelection in 2024, with Reps. Barbara Lee, Katie Porter and Adam Schiff all vying for the open seat. If she were to retire, California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, would be able to appoint her replacement. While that could give an edge in the 2024 race, Newsom could appoint a caretaker interim who wouldn’t run for reelection, allowing an open contest for the seat.

Feinstein resisted calls to resign earlier this month from Khanna and Rep. Dean Phillips, D-Minn., with her office releasing a statement saying she hoped to return to office.

“When I was first diagnosed with shingles, I expected to return by the end of the March work period,” said the statement. “Unfortunately, my return to Washington has been delayed due to continued complications related to my diagnosis. I intend to return as soon as possible once my medical team advises that it’s safe for me to travel. In the meantime, I remain committed to the job and will continue to work from home in San Francisco.”

Rep. Ro Khanna.
Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., in his Cannon Building office on Feb. 10. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images)

Feinstein’s health issues are not new. Politico reported in September 2020 that Democrats were worried she’d be unable to handle Amy Coney Barrett’s Supreme Court confirmation hearing.

“Feinstein sometimes gets confused by reporters’ questions, or will offer different answers to the same question depending on where or when she’s asked,” read the story, adding, “Feinstein relies heavily on her ever-present staff to deal with any issues, frequently turning to them for help in responding to inquiries.”

The San Francisco Chronicle reported last April on concerns over her ability to serve. The story included a quote from one anonymous Democratic senator saying of Feinstein’s health, “It’s bad, and it’s getting worse,” and an anonymous Democratic staffer saying, “There’s a joke on the Hill, we’ve got a great junior senator in Alex Padilla and an experienced staff in Feinstein’s office.”