WASHINGTON — For seven months in 1988, Joe Biden was absent from the Senate, recovering from operations to repair brain aneurysms.
The first lasted eight hours. Three months later, a second aneurysm sent him back to surgery.
The Delaware senator’s convalescence was so guarded that he wouldn’t take phone calls from President Ronald Reagan. Colleagues feared that even if he recovered, he wouldn’t be the same, according to a Biden memoir and Delaware Today.
Press scrutiny was respectful and scarce. But when the gregarious Biden returned to the Senate, it was pretty much business as usual.
The Washington Post reported he came “buoyantly back into his senatorial duties yesterday, greeted at almost every turn by reunions, tributes and the other rites by which the Senate tribe honors the return of a fallen warrior.”
Fast forward to 2023.
As Sen. Dianne Feinstein tries to ease herself back into the comfortable, collegial Senate, she’s finding an endlessly curious press corps and public.
Can the California Democrat, whose term ends in January 2025, continue to do her job in a world where her every utterance and appearance will be played, replayed and scrutinized? How long will Californians tolerate an ailing, frail senator they remember as the dynamic, savvy San Francisco mayor who became a Washington power broker for a generation?
“The roll calls and being present for committee votes are probably the biggest thing right now, and she is doing that. There are other representational activities that she is not doing that could mean it is a bit harder to represent the needs of all Californians,” said Christian Grose, academic director of the University of Southern California Schwarzenegger Institute.
Her May 10 return to the Senate, after an three month absence due to shingles, illustrated the huge challenge ahead.
When Feinstein’s car pulled up to the Senate entrance that afternoon, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer greeted her and an aide pushed her into the building in a wheelchair. The roughly 50 journalists who watched were instructed to keep about 20 feet away.
The Feinstein watch had begun.
“I think Senator Feinstein is facing a high level of scrutiny because her long absence came when she was already facing public reporting by her hometown newspaper (the San Francisco Chronicle) that she was mentally unfit to serve in the Senate,” said Gregory Koger, professor of political science at the University of Miami.
“Her staff attributed her stay in California to shingles (with little other medical information), which is a painful malady but not ordinarily severe enough to keep someone from their job for two months, so there are a lot of unanswered questions about her capacity to do her job.”
Biden and Feinstein
There are some significant differences between now and then, of course. Biden was 45 at the time and returned full of energy. Feinstein turns 90 next month, and her frail condition and memory lapses have been in plain view for some time. Her vote is crucial in a 51-49 Senate. In 1988, Biden was part of a 55-45 Democratic majority.
The biggest difference: The public and press.
“There was kind of a moral code that has given way to super aggressiveness,” said Ross Baker, professor of American politics at Rutgers University and a veteran congressional observer.
Even if reporters in years past did ask tough questions of ailing elected officials, the public often refrained from calling for their resignation or demanding more personal details.
Today, with cell phones at the ready to record anything and on-line audiences with a seemingly bottomless appetite for content, Feinstein is struggling with a different media culture.
“The press is now more visual, more diverse, more critical,” said Donald Ritchie, Senate historian emeritus.
Home in the Senate
The Senate is still a place where colleagues refer to each other as the “gentleman” or “gentle lady,” and where — unlike the more raucous House — personal attacks are exceedingly rare. Tolerance is as traditional in the Senate as the two spittoons that sit under each leader’s desk (one for the Republican leader, one for the Democrat).
It’s also a place with a long history of members who missed months, even years, of votes, and returned frail and sometimes confused.
Sen. Carter Glass, a Virginia Democrat, was 87 and had not voted in more than two years when he returned in 1945.
“The distinguished senior Senator from Virginia was frail and silent, enfeebled by age and long illness,” reported Time Magazine. “Last week Virginia newspapers, respectfully but almost unanimously, were urging the aged Senator to retire.”
Time found that “this week reporters heard that the question of resignation had been put up to him. The man Franklin Roosevelt once called an ‘unreconstructed rebel’ gave his answer: no.” Glass would die a year later, still having cast no votes since becoming ill.
Sen. Clair Engle, a California Democrat, had a brain tumor and was partially paralyzed when the roll was called on breaking a filibuster on the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He was able to lift his arm and point to his eye, and was recorded as an “aye” vote. He died six weeks later.
In 2001, Sen. Strom Thurmond was 98 when he fainted on the Senate floor.
Sen. Bill Frist, a cardiac surgeon, and others attended to the South Carolina Republican, and he was taken to a hospital. Thurmond was released the next day. Earlier in the year, he had suffered what CNN called “a variety of low-level but persistent ailments, including stomach upset, back pain, dehydration and exhaustion.”
More recently, Sen. Mark Kirk, an Illinois Republican, suffered a stroke in early 2012. He was paralyzed on his left side and didn’t return to the Senate for a year. He sought re-election in 2016 and lost to Sen. Tammy Duckworth, a Democrat.
Sen. John McCain underwent brain surgery in 2017, then returned to the Senate to cast the decisive vote that ended the Trump administration’s effort to partially repeal Obamacare. The Arizona Republican stopped voting that December as his health worsened. He died in August 2018.
While four House members, including Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Santa Clara, a leading progressive voice, have have called for Feinstein’s resignation, Senate colleagues remained supportive.
“Even in a polarized political environment, the Senate remains a collegial institution,” Ritchie said.
Feinstein in the 2020s
Feinstein has in recent years been a shadow of the shrewd, confident politician who became a senator in 1992.
She infuriated many Democrats in 2020 after the Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett. Barrett had been whisked through the process with unusual speed after the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
After the contentious hearing, Feinstein hugged Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and said “This has been one of the best set of hearings that I’ve participated in.”
With the urging of party Senate leaders, who were concerned not only about the criticism but her ability to lead the committee, Feinstein stepped down from her post as the committee’s top Democrat. Three years later, she declined to become Senate President Pro Tem, a largely ceremonial position that would put her third in line for the presidency.
But Feinstein still holds powerful positions on the Judiciary Committee and the Appropriations Committee, where key spending decisions are made. And she is still the senior senator representing the state with the world’s fourth largest economy and roughly 10% of the nation’s population.
When she came back to the Senate May 10, someone shouted a question asking her how she felt. “Much better,” she said, barely audible.
She didn’t speak to the media, instead issuing a detailed statement saying she would pursue a “lighter schedule.” That means she will participate in floor votes and committee work, depending on what’s on the schedule. She declined an interview request with The Bee.
Democrats control 51 seats. In the Senate Judiciary Committee, Democrats have 11 members to the Republicans’ 10, which means in her absence, it’s more difficult to move Biden’s judicial nominations to full Senate consideration.
She attended the committee meeting last week, arriving late but in time to cast a vote sending three of the controversial judges to the floor.
The Senate has voted 14 times since she returned. She missed one on May 10 and three on Wednesday. All the votes since her return have been noncontroversial, usually involving judicial nominations or executive appointments.
Though she has been in a wheelchair, Feinstein walked while on the Senate floor. She had been diagnosed with shingles on February 26, was hospitalized until March 7, but is still feeling temporary side effects, including vision and balance impairments.
Even a somewhat limited Feinstein is important, said USC’s Grose.
“Feinstein being back in the work and casting votes on the judiciary committee for judges and engaging in these and other roll calls is a key part of representing her constituents,” he said, “so her being back to work — even with a light schedule — is representing a large group of her constituents.”
And constituent service continues, because, Grose said, as “most senators rely on their staff to do this work so I think that can still be done too.”
What’s unknown is how much Feinstein can engage with those constituents. That means “finding out what is on the mind of Californians, and it may be more challenging for Senator Feinstein to do this kind of work at this time,” Grose said.