By Manu Raju, CNN Senior Congressional Correspondent
Updated: Wed, 21 Oct 2020 12:14:51 GMT
Senate Democratic leaders on Tuesday pointedly refused to say if they supported California Sen. Dianne Feinstein staying in her post as the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, sidestepping questions about the veteran party elder after she praised Republicans' handling of the confirmation proceedings for Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett.
Feinstein's comments, praising Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham last week after four days of confirmation hearings, infuriated Democrats and liberal activists who had been seeking to mount a unified attack over proceedings they deemed a sham. Two progressive groups, including the abortion-rights lobby NARAL, demanded she be removed as the top Democrat on the committee, while GOP leaders have repeatedly highlighted her comments as they race to get Barrett confirmed eight days before Election Day.
On Tuesday, the top two Senate Democrats would not say if they had confidence in Feinstein.
"I've had a long and serious talk with Sen. Feinstein," Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer told reporters when asked if he was looking to make changes atop the powerful committee. "That's all I'm going to say about it right now."
Asked by CNN after his news conference if he had confidence in Feinstein, the New York Democrat would not say, referring to his remarks from his news conference.
Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Senate Democrat, who typically engages in extended exchanges with reporters, also refused to comment to CNN about Feinstein.
"I'm not going to comment," Durbin said when asked if he had confidence in her stewardship on the panel.
Appearing later on CNN's "The Lead with Jake Tapper," Durbin tried to avoid weighing on Feinstein but ultimately seemed to take issue with Feinstein's comments praising Graham at the end of the hearings.
"I thought her opening statement and questions were good throughout," Durbin said of his longtime colleague. "I sat next to her throughout the hearing. I stayed in the hearing during the four days. I think the Democrats really presented a powerful case. The shot at the end may have been misleading as to what the rest of the committee felt about this."
Feinstein, 87, has come under growing scrutiny about her role atop the panel given her more genteel style of politics while serving on perhaps the most partisan committee in all of the Senate. But as the oldest senator in the chamber, she also has faced growing questions in the Capitol about whether she can handle the responsibilities of the job.
Removing Feinstein from the post won't be an easy task. The Senate operates on a seniority-based system and Feinstein -- who has had a long career, has served on the panel for roughly a quarter century and is revered by many of her colleagues -- would be the first woman to serve as chair of the Judiciary Committee if Democrats gain control of the chamber in next month's elections.
Yet Schumer would be under pressure from the left to not give her the chairmanship of the committee, and he likely will face calls to cut a deal and give her a spot atop another influential panel instead.
During last week's confirmation proceedings, Feinstein did criticize the GOP's unusually fast time frame pushing for Barrett's confirmation, and she did challenge Barrett to explain her views on abortion rights, gun control and health care, among other issues.
Yet she also repeatedly praised Barrett and her family, irking fellow Democrats, who said such comments helped soften Barrett's image and portray her as a sympathetic nominee.
Democrats were particularly incensed at Feinstein's remarks at the end of the hearings, where she turned to Graham and said: "This is one of the best set of hearings that I've participated in." She shook Graham's hand and later hugged the Republican, who is battling in South Carolina to survive reelection in one of the toughest Senate races of his career.
When approached in the Capitol on Tuesday, Feinstein declined to comment on Schumer's remark.
Several Judiciary Committee Democrats also would not engage about the controversy.
Sen. Mazie Hirono, a Hawaii Democrat who sits on the panel, said Feinstein and the rest of the Democrats at the hearing made clear "the danger" that Barrett poses to the Affordable Care Act, among other issues. "At the end, Dianne was being gracious."
Asked if she had confidence in Feinstein staying in the post, Hirono said: "That's all I'm going to say about it."
"I understand how angry many Democrats are about the Barrett confirmation, I share that anger, but I frankly think folks are taking it out on her (Feinstein)," Sen. Chris Coons said Wednesday on CNN's "New Day."
The Delaware Democrat, who also sits on the panel, argued that the "anger" should be "more appropriately focused at the Republicans who are driving through this extreme nominee, who is unqualified to serve because of her extreme views."
Asked if he wants Feinstein to remain the top Democrat on the committee, Coons replied, "I have a lot of respect for Sen. Feinstein and her long record of leadership. And I think this is an issue that's best worked out by the caucus."
This story has been updated with additional developments Wednesday.