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Feinstein returns to the Senate Judiciary Committee, helping advance Biden judges

Following a three-month absence, Feinstein's votes in Thursday's meeting allowed Democrats to advance three judicial nominees to the full Senate for consideration.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., arrives for a Senate Judiciary Committee meeting on Capitol Hill on May 11, 2023.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., arrives for a Senate Judiciary Committee meeting on Thursday. Jim Watson / AFP - Getty Images

WASHINGTON — One day after making a long-anticipated return to Congress, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., attended her first Judiciary Committee meeting on Thursday after a monthslong absence following a shingles diagnosis in February.

With Feinstein’s “aye” votes, Democrats were able to send three additional judicial nominees to the Senate floor for consideration on party-line votes: Charnelle Bjelkengren to be a district court judge in Washington state; Kato Crews to be a district court judge in Colorado; and Marian Gaston to be a district court judge in California.

With a majority needed and the panel split between 11 Democrats and 10 Republicans, Democrats had been unable to advance nominees without some level of bipartisan support because of Feinstein's absence, leading some to call for her resignation.

But on Thursday, some Democrats were relieved they could hit the gas again on Biden's nominees without needing GOP support.

“It’s full speed ahead, absolutely,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. “No delays or holdups that I can see.”

Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., defended Feinstein’s decision not to resign, saying that “like many other senators in our history, she had an illness.”

“She’s returned to the Senate. I’m excited about that. The Senate was getting a lot of work done. A lot of judiciary nominees have been passing through the Senate,” Booker said. “So, it’s great that she’s back. She is somebody that I’ve leaned on in my 10 years here as an incredible confidant and mentor.”

Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., said he was disappointed to see Democrats advance a nominee like Bjelkengren after she failed to answer simple questions about the Constitution during her hearing, such as what Article V and Article II say.

“There are a handful of President Biden's nominees who are more activists than lawyers,” Kennedy said Thursday. “And just based on a cursory examination of them, it appears they got their law degrees with a happy meal. And they don’t deserve to be judges. And it disappoints me.”

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., arrives for a Senate Judiciary Committee meeting on Capitol Hill on May 11, 2023.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein receives a standing ovation on Thursday. Jim Watson / AFP - Getty Images

The meeting started shortly after 10 a.m. ET, and Feinstein arrived at around 11:24; senators often go in and out of committee meetings and several other members voted by proxy. The committee approved a few nominees with bipartisan support before Feinstein's arrival and then advanced another three with just Democratic votes, including her "aye."

Feinstein, 89, was pushed into the committee room in a wheelchair and did not respond to shouted questions by reporters.

When Feinstein arrived in the committee room, Senate Judiciary Chairman Dick Durbin, D-Ill., announced her presence to a standing ovation from her colleagues. Feinstein — wheelchair now absent — walked to take her seat, appearing to mouth “thank you” to applauding senators and staffers. She sat next to Durbin and shook his hand.

"I believe I speak for all of us with feelings of relief and support for our colleague, Sen. Feinstein, who has returned to Washington," Durbin said in his opening remarks before her arrival. "I know that she's been through some significant health challenges, and we all wish her the very best."

Ranking member Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., echoed Durbin in his opening remarks.

"I, too, want to welcome Sen. Feinstein back, and glad to have her," Graham said.

One Biden nominee who did not get a vote Thursday was Michael Delaney, selected to be a judge for the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals. Delaney has faced questions for his role in a school sexual assault case, and it has been unclear if he has the votes to be confirmed. It’s not clear when the committee will vote on his nomination.

The last Judiciary Committee meeting Feinstein attended was on Feb. 16, the last day she cast a vote before Wednesday's return to the Hill.

Feinstein defended herself against calls for her resignation last week, noting in a statement that the Judiciary Committee had advanced seven nominees who had bipartisan support and saying there had been "no slowdown."

In April, Democrats requested to temporarily replace Feinstein on the Judiciary Committee. Senate Republicans blocked the attempt.

Feinstein, 89, was elected to the Senate in 1992. She announced in February that she will not seek re-election in 2024, opening up what is expected to be fierce Democratic competition for her successor.

Thursday's Judiciary Committee meeting adjourned at noon.