Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein has positioned herself at the busy intersection of law and politics, starting with next week’s confirmation hearing for President-elect Donald Trump’s contentious choice for attorney general.
The two-day confirmation hearing for Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama will mark Feinstein’s debut as ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee. The hearing will test California’s senior senator, in more ways than one, and it will soon be followed by an even higher-stakes fight over a lifetime seat on the Supreme Court.
“This is the loyal opposition,” Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois said of Feinstein’s new role.
California’s junior senator, Democrat Kamala Harris, has already called Sessions’ nomination “troubling” and 1,100 law school professors sent a letter to Congress expressing skepticism that the Alabama lawmaker will fairly promote justice and equality. Feinstein and Sessions, one of the most conservative members of the Senate, have clashed on issues including immigration and abortion rights.
Feinstein, though, also prides herself on her law-and-order credentials, and Rory Little, a professor at the University of California Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco, said he expects her to be fair with Trump nominees. She is also likely to seek commitments from Sessions to enforce federal civil rights and hate crimes law. His nomination to be a federal judge in the 1980s was blocked over allegations of racially offensive comments.
One of the few non-lawyers on the judiciary panel, Sen. Dianne Feinstein has enough rank to affect both the tone and substance of Democratic resistance to Trump’s immigration, law enforcement and judicial efforts.
“She’s not a grandstander and her staff does a very good job of preparing her to ask serious, intelligent questions,” Little said. “She’s not looking to necessarily get on the nightly news.”
The outnumbered Democrats don’t have the power to block Cabinet nominees without help from Senate Republicans, and have limited options on Supreme Court nominees. Feinstein, though, can spotlight problems with Trump’s picks. One of the few non-lawyers on the 20-member judiciary panel, Feinstein’s ranking position enhances her clout in setting both the tone and substance of Democratic resistance to Trump’s immigration, law enforcement and court-packing policies.
The 83-year-old Feinstein will now typically be the first Democrat to speak at committee hearings, including the one for Sessions that begins Tuesday morning. She’ll oversee a Democratic minority staff of about 20, and have additional office space. She’ll be a favored guest on the Sunday and cable television news shows where many Capitol Hill battles are fought.
“They gather their members together, and talk about an approach; in (deciding) how much time for questions and what kind of subjects will come up,” said Durbin, himself a longtime member of the judiciary committee.
Feinstein shifted to the Democrats’ top judiciary committee position for the new 115th Congress after serving in a similar capacity on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Feinstein previously served as the intelligence panel’s chairwoman when Democrats held power.
“I think she’s going to be a strong and vigorous leader, especially coming from the other positions of top responsibility she’s had,” said Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, a judiciary committee member. “She is tenacious and tireless.”
The confirmation hearing for Sessions already is shaping up as a hot one, with groups including the American Civil Liberties Union raising pointed questions about him. Further complicating the picture is Sessions’ own history as an outspoken member of the judiciary committee. The experience might help him if Democrats extend a hand to a long-time colleague, but it also could hurt him with lawmakers with whom he has crossed swords.
“While Senator Sessions and I differ on a great many issues, I am committed to a full and fair process,” Feinstein said.
After Sessions, it may be only a matter of days or weeks before Trump presents Feinstein and her fellow Democrats with his choice to replace the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. Feinstein voted against both Supreme Court nominees that were put forward by the previous Republican president, George W. Bush.
Feinstein was the first woman to serve on the judiciary committee. She was named to the committee following the bitter 1991 confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, which featured sexual harassment allegations against Thomas by Anita Hill. Now Feinstein becomes the first woman to become ranking member of the committee.
“There was a big backlash in the country and on the Democratic side a sense that it was not helpful to have all men on the dais grilling Anita Hill,” said Mark Kadesh, Feinstein’s former chief of staff. “It’s come full circle in that the judiciary committee lacked a woman’s perspective, and now with a critical Supreme Court nomination she will be the ranking member.”
With three current Supreme Court justices aged 78 or older, there’s a distinct possibility that Feinstein might end up considering more than one Trump appointee to the Supreme Court. Critically, if somewhat lower on the public radar, 112 other federal judicial vacancies await filling through Trump nominations, including 17 on influential circuit courts of appeal.