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Republicans block an effort to replace Feinstein on Senate Judiciary Committee

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Senate Republicans have blocked an effort from Democrats to temporarily replace Senator Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat, on the Senate Judiciary Committee, with another Democrat, of course. Feinstein is recuperating from shingles and has not voted since February. She's facing pressure from a handful of House Democrats to resign. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer sidestepped a question on whether Feinstein should consider stepping down.

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CHUCK SCHUMER: I spoke to Senator Feinstein just a few days ago, and she and I are both very hopeful that she will return very soon.

MARTIN: But for now, without Feinstein's vote on the committee, it means that President Biden's judicial nominees are stalled. NPR congressional correspondent Deirdre Walsh is with us this morning to tell us more about this. Good morning.

DEIRDRE WALSH, BYLINE: Good morning, Michel.

MARTIN: So what is the Republicans' argument for why they oppose the effort to replace Feinstein at least on this temporary basis?

WALSH: Well, the top Senate Republican, Mitch McConnell, argued yesterday that most of President Biden's judicial nominees have bipartisan support inside the Judiciary Committee. But McConnell says a small fraction, in his view, are too extreme, so he didn't want to help Democrats get them through by swapping in someone else to take her place.

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MITCH MCCONNELL: Let's be clear. Senate Republicans will not take part in sidelining a temporary absent colleague off a committee just so Democrats can force through their very worst nominees.

WALSH: McConnell has made confirming conservative judges a huge priority during his career, and we can see how important Trump-appointed judges on the federal bench have already been - on impacting issues like abortion by blocking the ability of Democrats to confirm some of Biden's nominees on a party line, which is how a lot of conservative judges got through under McConnell's leadership. McConnell and Republicans can block some of Biden's picks off the courts.

MARTIN: You know, it's interesting, though, Deirdre, that Republicans have also had senators missing votes due to illness or other medical issues, right?

WALSH: Yes, including McConnell, who was just out for a few weeks when he was recovering from a concussion. Maine Independent Senator Angus King told me it's easy to see how the situation could be reversed, so he was just disappointed that Republicans blocked this.

MARTIN: So do the Democrats have a plan about what to do now?

WALSH: It's unclear. One Democrat, Richard Blumenthal, who serves on the Judiciary Committee, told me they're looking at rules and tools to press ahead with the president's nominees, but he said they're still discussing those and what next steps they can take. But for now, the vacancy on that committee means some nominees are going to be deadlocked, and this could really ramp up pressure on Feinstein to resign. We already saw some House Democrats call for that last week.

MARTIN: And what about that? Is there - do you see any new movement in that direction, any new voices calling for Feinstein to step down?

WALSH: You know, so far it's really been confined to a small group in the House. No Senate Democrat is going there right now. And as you noted earlier, Schumer continues to say, and other Democrats have been saying, they hope that Feinstein will be back soon. Democrats in the Senate instead are really criticizing Republicans for not extending what they see as a courtesy to a veteran Senator Feinstein, who has good relationships on both sides of the aisle. Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren was really incensed when she was talking to reporters about this yesterday.

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ELIZABETH WARREN: And the Republicans, instead of extending that courtesy to this woman who has served so honorably, are saying no way. They want to play politics all the time.

WALSH: Senate Democrats for now continue to say Feinstein's decision about what happens next is up to her, and they're really willing to give her some space. But, Michel, that might not last forever. There are some Senate Democrats, like Amy Klobuchar, who have said...

MARTIN: OK.

WALSH: ...The longer Feinstein is out, it impacts the committee and the country.

MARTIN: That's NPR's Deirdre Walsh. Deirdre, thank you so much.

WALSH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
Deirdre Walsh is the congress editor for NPR's Washington Desk.