It was a hug that quickly cast a shadow over Dianne Feinstein’s long career in the U.S. Senate.
The California Democrat embraced Republican Lindsey Graham at the close of confirmation hearings Thursday for President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Amy Coney Barrett, publicly thanking the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman for a job well done.
“This has been one of the best set of hearings that I’ve participated in,” Feinstein said.
Calls from liberal activists for her ouster from Democratic leadership were swift, unequivocal and relentless.
“It’s time for Sen. Feinstein to step down from her leadership position on the Senate Judiciary Committee,” said Brian Fallon, the executive director of Demand Justice, which opposes conservative nominees to the courts. “If she won’t, her colleagues need to intervene.”
Eli Zupnick, the spokesman for Fix Our Senate, said: “Sen. Feinstein is absolutely wrong about what is happening in the Senate and in her committee.”
Zupnick said in a statement that Republicans were trying to “jam” Barrett’s nomination through the Senate and that it “should not be treated as a legitimate confirmation process.”
The angry response was not a knee-jerk reaction to an off-the-cuff moment between two longtime senators, but the result of a slow-burning frustration among leading liberal advocates that Feinstein, the panel’s top Democrat, is no longer the right fit for the job.
Supreme Court confirmation battles have gone from bipartisan Senate fare to bare-knuckle brawls as Republicans, led by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, mounted an aggressive Trump-era campaign to transform the judiciary with conservative judges.
Trump has been able to install more than 200 judges on the federal bench and is now poised to seat his third justice on the Supreme Court.
Barrett is being rushed to confirmation before the Nov. 3 election to replace the late liberal icon Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a shift that would lock in a 6-3 conservative court majority for years to come. Rulings on abortion, same-sex marriage, healthcare and other major issues are in sight.
Fallon said in a statement that Democrats can no longer be led on the Judiciary Committee by someone who treats “the Republican theft of a Supreme Court seat with kid gloves.”
Feinstein, 87, has been taking it from all sides during Barrett’s nomination process.
Republicans attacked the senator for questioning Barrett’s Roman Catholic faith three years ago when the then-Notre Dame Law School professor was undergoing confirmation proceedings for the 7th District U.S. Court of Appeals.
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At the time, Feinstein said Barrett’s opposition to abortion must be rooted in her religion and questioned if it would influence her rulings on the bench, saying the “dogma lives loudly in you.”
It became a rallying point this week for Republicans defending Barrett’s faith, so much so that Graham praised the judge as an “unashamedly pro-life” nominee who could be a role model to other conservative women.
Feinstein avoided the trap and was careful during her questioning of Barrett not to probe her faith. Democrats were determined to avoid a repeat of the 2017 hearing.
But as other Democratic senators seized the spotlight, using the four days of hearings to lob attacks against Trump and his court nominee, Feinstein often took a more diplomatic approach. At one point she declared herself “impressed” with Barrett’s handling of questions. Liberal eyes rolled.
Still, despite the complaints, Democrats have Feinstein to thank for a few key moments during the process.
It was Feinstein who drew a notable non-answer from Barrett when asked if she agreed with the late conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, her mentor, that the Voting Rights Act “perpetuated racial entitlement.”
And Barrett gave Feinstein a similar non-answer when asked if she agreed with other conservatives who argue that Medicare, the healthcare program for older Americans, is unconstitutional.
Feinstein’s office declined further comment, but pointed to a statement she issued about the hearing.
“Judiciary Committee Democrats had one goal this week: to show what’s at stake under a 6-3 conservative Supreme Court — and we did that,” Feinstein said. “We showed that Judge Barrett has a long history of opposing the Affordable Care Act and Roe [vs.] Wade and represents the vote to overturn both.”
But those moments may be forgotten for the one that is now being remembered — all the more notable because it happened during the COVID-19 crisis, with neither senator wearing a mask. It was the hug.
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