The death of Dianne Feinstein on Friday, at 90 years old, was not a surprise in her native San Francisco, where she was the first female mayor, nor in Washington, where she served for more than three decades in the Senate, an extraordinary political career spanning titanic battles over the AIDS epidemic, gun control, and the war on terror. A Senate Democratic source described the news as a “gut punch.” Nevertheless, the somber observation of her passing was followed by a sense of uncertainty on Capitol Hill, where Democrats are eager for California Governor Gavin Newsom to quickly appoint her successor.
Congress, after all, was in chaos Thursday night as House Republicans once again failed to pass legislation to keep the government open. The Senate has put forward its own spending legislation, led by Chuck Schumer, who now holds onto the majority by just a single vote. Newsom is expected to name Feinstein’s replacement in the coming days, but her passing also sets into motion a chain reaction in the Senate, where Feinstein, the chamber’s oldest leader, served on the three critical committees: Intel, Appropriations, and most notably, Judiciary. With Feinstein’s passing, the Judiciary Committee is deadlocked. Republican John Cornyn indicated Friday that Republicans were not looking to hinder Democrats in replacing her, but many are on edge.
Newsom, of course, understands the political gravity of his choice, having previously appointed California’s now-senior senator, Alex Padilla, after Kamala Harris vacated her seat in 2021. “I don’t want to make another appointment, and I don’t think the people of California want me to make another appointment,” he recently told Chuck Todd on Meet the Press. In choosing Feinstein’s successor, the governor will need to balance a number of competing coalitions and interest groups in California, as well as his own palpable presidential ambitions.
To wit: Newsom has long promised that if Feinstein were to resign, he would appoint a Black woman. For at least a year, it’s been widely speculated among the Democratic political class that Newsom would name Rep. Barbara Lee—one of three House Democratic members who were running to replace Feinstein, along with Katie Porter and Adam Schiff. Lee has struggled mightily behind Schiff and Porter in fundraising; as an incumbent, she could have received the badly-needed jet fuel to help her compete financially.