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Feinstein says she's stepping down as top Democrat on Senate Judiciary Committee

Feinstein came under fierce criticism from progressives after she lavished praise on Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham for his handling of the Amy Coney Barrett confirmation hearings.
Image: Dianne Feinstein
Senate Judiciary Committee ranking member Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., speaks during a hearing in Washington on March 6, 2019.Alex Brandon / AP file

WASHINGTON — Sen. Dianne Feinstein said Monday she will step down as top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee in the new session of Congress beginning early 2021, marking a victory for progressives who pressured her to step aside.

“After serving as the lead Democrat on the Judiciary Committee for four years, I will not seek the chairmanship or ranking member position in the next Congress,” the California Democrat said in a statement.

Feinstein, 87, said she intends to remain on the committee. She won re-election to a six-year term in 2018 and her term doesn’t expire until the end of 2024.

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., the No. 2 Democrat in the chamber, said after Feinstein's announcement that he intends to seek the party's top position on the Judiciary Committee.

Ranking Member Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., and Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., hug as the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Judge Amy Coney Barrett come to a close on Capitol Hill on Oct. 15, 2020.Samuel Corum / Getty Images file

Feinstein came under fierce criticism from progressives after she lavished praise on Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., for his handling of the Amy Coney Barrett Supreme Court hearing, and gave him a hug after the proceedings concluded on Oct. 15.

“I just want to thank you. This has been one of the best set of hearings that I've participated in,” Feinstein told Graham in the committee room. “Thank you so much for your leadership.”

Progressive groups including Demand Justice, NARAL and MoveOn.org called on Feinstein to step aside, accusing her of undercutting the party’s message against Republicans holding a Supreme Court hearing on the eve of the 2020 election after they refused to under President Barack Obama in 2016.

“This was a necessary step if Democrats are ever going to meaningfully confront the damage Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell have done to the federal judiciary,” said Brian Fallon, the executive director of Demand Justice who led the calls for Feinstein to step aside. “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.”

On Oct. 20, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said: “I’ve had a long and serious talk with Sen. Feinstein. That’s all I’m going to say about it right now.”

On Monday Schumer praised Feinstein for her work and said “Senator 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.”

Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin said Monday evening that he would run to replace Feinstein as top Democrat on the committee, pointing out that he had served on it for 22 years and was the most senior Democrat not to serve at the top of a committee.

“For the last four years, Republicans leading the Senate Judiciary Committee have turned a blind eye to the worst abuses of the Trump era,” Durbin said in a statement. “While President Trump assaulted the Constitution, the Judiciary Committee abdicated its oversight responsibilities and became little more than a conveyor belt to rubberstamp ideological and largely underqualified judicial nominees. The to-do list for the Senate Judiciary Committee is long, and of critical importance to the future progress of our country.”

It is unclear if Democrats will be in the majority or minority come January — two runoff elections in Georgia will determine the balance of power in the chamber.

“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 Monday. “I will continue to do my utmost to bring about positive change in the coming years.”