Feinstein’s Absence Complicates Democrats’ Path to 5 Biden Goals

  • California Democrat may be needed for debt limit vote
  • She’s also a senior member of Appropriations Committee

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Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s extended absence from the Senate has the potential to complicate more issues than President Joe Biden’s judicial nominees. It threatens other crucial parts of his agenda, including a Cabinet pick and a potential debt deal.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) told reporters on Tuesday he hopes Feinstein is back in the Senate “soon.” But her office has not given an estimated return date for the 89-year-old Democrat as she recovers from complications from shingles in California.

Photographer: Ting Shen/Bloomberg
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) has been absent from the Senate because of illness.

Democrats currently hold at 51-49 majority, when independents who caucus or regularly vote with the party are counted.

“We’re constantly having to juggle” senators’ absences, said Sen. Debbie Stabenow (Mich.), a member of Democratic leadership. “We’re day-by-day looking at who’s here.”

For now, no Senate Democrats are calling for Feinstein to resign from the Senate. But if her absence continues and begins to significantly impact their agenda, that could change quickly.

Here are five issues that Democrats would likely need Feinstein voting on in order to advance their agenda — or stop Republican priorities.

Debt Limit

Congress is facing a deadline in the coming months to either raise or suspend the federal government’s borrowing limit — or risk severe economic repercussions with an unprecedented federal default.

“Right now she says she’s going to return, let’s make sure that happens,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) told ABC this week. “And it sure better happen before the debt-ceiling vote.”

The last two bills to increase the debt limit during the Biden administration passed with a scant 50 votes in Senate, and future increases could feature similarly narrow margins.

The House is slated to vote next week on GOP legislation that would put off the debt ceiling nearly a year in exchange for cuts in discretionary spending. It’s not clear how the two parties get a bill to the president’s desk before the deadline, which will likely be this summer.

McCarthy Proposes $1.5 Trillion US Debt-Limit Increase (2)

Cabinet Confirmation

Democrats need to muster every vote they have to confirm Julie Su as Labor secretary to replace Marty Walsh. She has been facing fierce Republican and business opposition as moderate senators have been hesitant to endorse her.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) has reportedly expressed reservations but declined to comment on Wednesday. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.) hasn’t voiced any opinions on Su’s nomination, and Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) said this week he was undecided. All three swing votes are up for re-election next year.

If any one of those senators defect, Feinstein’s vote would be crucial as it would create a 50-50 tie on the Su nomination, which Vice President Kamala Harris would then break in her role as Senate president.

DOL Deputy Su Hammered on Union Clout as Democrats Defend Record

Beating Back GOP Resolutions

Republicans have teed up over half a dozen measures overturning Biden administration regulations. They only require a simple majority to pass thanks to expedited procedures in the Congressional Review Act (CRA).

That means Democrats may face tight margins to halt measures that would force a Biden veto.

That’s most likely to happen on more partisan measures, like those blocking Biden from forgiving publicly-held student loans (H. J. Res. 45/S. J. Res. 22), implementing trucking emission standards (H. J. Res. 53/S. J. Res. 11), limiting qualifications barring undocumented immigrants that would designate them as “inadmissible” (S. J. Res. 18), and defining firearm stabilizing braces (H. J. Res. 44/S. J. Res. 20).

The trucking emissions resolution could move as soon as next week.

Senators on Wednesday narrowly defeated a measure aimed at preventing the Department of Veterans Affairs from providing abortions in some circumstances. But for the opposition of Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), it would have passed due to Feinstein missing the vote.

GOP Defectors Stop Senate Push to End Biden’s VA Abortion Policy

Thomas Ethics

A possible push by Judiciary Committee Democrats to subpoena Justice Clarence Thomas over recent ethics concerns is stalled with Feinstein out.

Judiciary Democrats met earlier this week and discussed their options. Republicans would almost assuredly vote in lockstep against a subpoena, and Feinstein’s absence would stall the vote, 10-10.

“I don’t have a majority” necessary to approve a subpoena, Senate Judiciary Chairman Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) told reporters on Thursday. “There’s been no discussion of subpoenas for anyone at this point.”

Thomas has come under pressure to address revelations in ProPublica that he received previously undisclosed gifts from Republican megadonor Harlan Crow. He has said he was operating within current ethical guidelines, although Democrats have said he overstepped them.

Durbin on Thursday invited Chief Justice John Roberts to voluntarily testify on possible changes to ethics rules. He has yet to respond.


Feinstein as a senior appropriator would play a key role in government funding ahead of the Sept. 30 deadline.

Already, the Appropriations Committee has decided another Democrat will fill in as chair of her Energy and Water Development Subcommittee when it convenes for hearings, including one potentially next week. That’s a typical custom, usually when chairmen temporarily step out of an ongoing committee meeting.

But Democrats may need a full complement of committee members on hand when it comes to marking up those spending bills, which can be advanced to the floor with a simple majority. Spending bills markups are expected in late May, although in recent years those have not always occurred.

Senators can vote by proxy in committee, but those remote ballots cannot change the outcome.

Feinstein, who has touted her seniority on Appropriations as a reason for staying in the Senate, will still be able to request earmarks – regardless of whether she is on Capitol Hill.

Feinstein Stand-In to Lead Appropriations Hearing During Absence

With assistance from Diego Areas Munhoz

To contact the reporter on this story: Zach C. Cohen in Washington at zcohen@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: George Cahlink at gcahlink@bloombergindustry.com; Bennett Roth at broth@bgov.com

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