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Why Dianne Feinstein's health matters to Senate Democrats

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Democrat Dianne Feinstein has been back at work in the Senate for about a week. The 89-year-old had been out for months because of a serious shingles infection, and in her week back here in Washington, questions about her fitness to serve have only intensified. If Feinstein can't meet the demands of her job, that jeopardizes the Democratic agenda in Congress, especially confirming judges. Georgetown law professor Caroline Fredrickson spent years working on Capitol Hill for Senate Democrats. She worked on a number of judicial nominations for Democrats and served on President Biden's Supreme Court commission. Thanks for being here.

CAROLINE FREDRICKSON: Thanks, Ari. I'm glad to be with you.

SHAPIRO: It's never comfortable to talk about someone's health. And Senator Feinstein's office has only released a little bit of information about her condition, but over the last week, reports have observed what seems like confusion and frailty. To begin, as someone who spent a lot of time working on Capitol Hill, why would you argue that Senator Feinstein's health in this case is news?

FREDRICKSON: Well, you know, unfortunately, from the point of view of those of us who are Democrats or who care about civil rights and the rule of law, we need every vote in the Senate, particularly right now for judicial nominations, which is one of the few areas where the Republicans cannot filibuster, but also the very important debates over the debt limit where her vote might be absolutely essential to make sure that our government doesn't default on its debt.

SHAPIRO: And has she missed votes in the week that she has been back?

FREDRICKSON: She missed a lot of votes while she was away, and that meant that there were delays in these very important judicial nominations, including the vote on Nancy Abudu, who was just confirmed to the 11th Circuit, who will be the first Black woman to serve on that court and is a phenomenal civil rights lawyer. That took way longer than it needed to, as well as other votes on judicial nominations that have just been in the queue waiting for Dianne Feinstein to come back.

SHAPIRO: So beyond judicial confirmations, you mentioned the debt ceiling. What are the implications for the business of the Senate if Dianne Feinstein is impaired?

FREDRICKSON: You know, it's fraught at the best of times because of a couple of the members of the Senate who caucus with the Democrats, but are not necessarily always dependable for really critical votes. And so when there's yet another one that you can't depend on, it puts everything in play.

SHAPIRO: Could you give us some insight into the conversation happening among your former colleagues right now? What do Senate staffers think about this situation?

FREDRICKSON: Well, you know, it's really sensitive. You know, Senator Feinstein has had an incredible service. She works hard, and she's absolutely dedicated her life to being a good public servant and senator. But on the other hand, I think Senator Feinstein also came to the Senate with ideals and with goals. And she's unfortunately undermining her own reason for being in the Senate by not stepping aside.

SHAPIRO: The senator's defenders will sometimes say that men in the Senate did not get as much criticism in similar situations, and Strom Thurmond was still a senator when he turned 100. What do you make of that argument?

FREDRICKSON: You know, I think it maybe just speaks to the fact that there have been so few women in the Senate and we're now able to have this conversation. And unfortunately, she's the one at that age. You know, I observed Strom Thurmond when he was in the Senate. I observed Claiborne Pell when he was in the Senate. For somebody like Claiborne Pell, I mean, it was painful to watch him in his final years in the Senate because he really wasn't able to represent the people of his state and he wasn't able to live up to the brilliance that he'd shown in his Senate career. You know, I'm one who's very sensitive to gender. I don't think this is a case where that's at issue. I think it's really about why are they in the Senate? And I think the senators represent us. They represent the people. And so when somebody ceases to be effective in that role or even competent, they should step aside. And that's true whether they're male or female, and definitely these calls should have been more forceful for other senators in the past.

SHAPIRO: Caroline Fredrickson is a visiting law professor at Georgetown University. She worked on Capitol Hill and advocates for Democratic judicial appointments. Thank you so much.

FREDRICKSON: Thank you, Ari. It was great being with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.
Alejandra Marquez Janse is a producer for NPR's evening news program All Things Considered. She was part of a team that traveled to Uvalde, Texas, months after the mass shooting at Robb Elementary to cover its impact on the community. She also helped script and produce NPR's first bilingual special coverage of the State of the Union – broadcast in Spanish and English.