California Sen. Dianne Feinstein announced on Monday that she would step down from the top Democratic spot on the Senate Judiciary Committee next year, following sharp criticism from liberal activists over her handling of the hearings for Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett.
Feinstein, 87, said she would "increase" her "attention" on the wildfire and drought crisis in California and that three issues -- the coronavirus pandemic, climate change and "access to health care" -- are "critical national priorities that require even more concentration."
Her statement did not mention Barrett's confirmation to replace the late liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, which further cemented the conservative majority on the Supreme Court.
While Democratic senators could not block Barrett's nomination in the Republican-led Senate on their own, liberal activists were apoplectic when Feinstein undermined Democrats' relentless attempt to portray the process as illegitimate when she praised Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham's leadership of it.
Democrats including Feinstein had blasted Senate Republicans for rushing to confirm the nominee in the month before Election Day, after blocking President Barack Obama's Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland in 2016 because it was an election year. But after four days of hearings in October, Feinstein told the South Carolina Republican that "this is one of the best set of hearings that I've participated in," and hugged him.
Liberal activists from groups like Demand Justice and NARAL Pro-Choice America quickly urged Feinstein to step down, and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer said he had a "long and serious talk" with her. Last month, Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, the Democratic whip, lauded Feinstein's opening statement and questions during the hearings on CNN's "The Lead with Jake Tapper," but characterized Feinstein's final comment to Graham as "misleading."
Demand Justice executive director Brian Fallon said on Monday that Feinstein made the right move.
"Going forward, Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee must be led by someone who will not wishfully cling to a bygone era of civility and decorum that Republicans abandoned long ago," said Fallon. "The next top Democrat on the committee must be someone who is willing to fight for President-elect Biden's nominees no matter what, and who will pursue bold action to restore balance to our courts."
Feinstein said she will continue to serve as a senior Democrat on the Judiciary, Intelligence, Appropriations and Rules panels, working on priorities like gun safety, criminal justice and immigration.
"I will continue to do my utmost to bring about positive change in the coming years," she said.
Schumer commended Feinstein "as one of the nation's leading advocates for women's and voting rights, gun safety reform, civil liberties, health care, and the rights of immigrants who are yearning to become citizens of this great country."
"Senator Feinstein's experience, decades-long relationship with President-elect Biden, and leadership on so many issues will continue to be an asset for our caucus, California, and the country as we begin a new term with the new president," he added.