Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California will become the highest ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee when the new Congress convenes, putting her at the center of the upcoming fight over confirming President-elect Donald Trump’s choice for the Supreme Court.
The move will make Feinstein one of the highest profile members of a Democratic Party searching for answers after losing the presidency and failing to prevent the Republicans from keeping control of the Senate and House.
But her effectiveness in countering Trump’s proposals will depend on her ability to win allies among Republicans on the committee, including those who already are critical of the president-elect, Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona and Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.
“She’s been around the Senate for a long time, has developed deep relationships with senators, both Democrats and Republicans,” said Nan Aron, president of the Alliance for Justice, a liberal group that closely watches the federal judicial system. “If anyone can reach across the aisle to some of the more conservative Republicans, I think it’s Dianne Feinstein.”
Feinstein promised to prevent Trump from carrying out some of his most radical campaign pledges.
“When President-elect Trump is willing to support responsible policies and nominees, I’ll hear him out, but this committee has a vital role to protect the Constitution and scrutinize policies, senior officials and judges very carefully, and that’s what we intend to do,” Feinstein said. “We simply won’t stand aside and watch the tremendous successes achieved over the past eight years be swept away or allow our nation’s most vulnerable populations to be targeted.”
The Senate Judiciary Committee, in addition to its role in confirming judicial nominees, works on a wide range of issues that Trump has said will be the focus of his administration, including immigration, crime and terrorism.
Feinstein expressed hope that she can work with Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, on bipartisan solutions. The committee’s work, though, is likely to get off to a bruising start as it considers Trump nominees.
“One of our first orders of business will be the consideration of a new attorney general and a new Supreme Court justice,” Feinstein said. “After the unprecedented and disrespectful treatment of Merrick Garland ‑ a moderate judge who should have been quickly confirmed ‑ the committee will pay very close attention to proposed nominees to ensure the fundamental constitutional rights of Americans are protected.”
Feinstein was an outspoken critic of Senate Republicans’ refusal to hold hearings to consider President Barack Obama’s nomination of Garland to replace deceased Justice Antonin Scalia. But as the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, a position she will be giving up to assume her post on the Judiciary Committee, she also worked closely with its chairman, Richard Burr, R-N.C., who said Wednesday that he “enjoyed engaging with her as a valued partner” on the committee.
Feinstein will have oversight over technology and privacy issues on the judiciary committee, and her work on the intelligence committee often pitted her against Silicon Valley. She fought Apple’s refusal to unlock the iPhone of San Bernardino shooter Syed Farook and joined Burr in drafting legislation seeking to give law enforcement access to encrypted data.
Unlike her predecessor on the Judiciary Committee, Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Feinstein defended the National Security Agency’s mass data surveillance program, and she could find common cause with Republicans on the judiciary committee when it comes to law-and-order issues.
Feinstein generally votes with the Democrats on judicial nominees but not always. She was the tie-breaking vote on the committee in favor of George W. Bush’s nomination of the controversial Leslie Southwick to a federal appeals court. She opposed Bush’s nomination of John Roberts to the Supreme Court, however, out of concern that he would oppose abortion rights.
Feinstein is clearly gearing up for a fight with Trump, saying that Trump’s choice of right wing media provocateur Stephen Bannon as chief White House strategist inflames fears of racist violence.
Her position on the judiciary committee puts her at the heart of the debate over immigration and border security, with Trump pledging to build a wall on the southern border and to increase deportations. Feinstein has supported at least some border fencing in the past but is an advocate of a comprehensive immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship.
“We have a lot of work to do. The judiciary committee has shown that it can lead the way toward bipartisan solutions on some of the most controversial issues like immigration reform and sex trafficking,” Feinstein said. “I’m hopeful that we’ll keep that tradition alive.”
Feinstein’s role as the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee goes to Mark Warner of Virginia. Leahy, her predecessor as ranking Democrat on the judiciary committee, will become the top Democrat on the appropriations committee, which considers all government spending bills.
Feinstein will be the first female ranking member of judiciary.