Feinstein, trail-blazing California senator, dies at 90

Last updated on September 29, 2023

California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein has died at age 90.

The trail-blazing Feinstein had faced mounting health problems in recent years; her replacement will be selected by Gov. Gavin Newsom (D-Calif.). Feinstein already announced she would not run for reelection in 2024, and the race for her seat is already underway.

Feinstein was the first woman elected to the Senate from California in 1992 and became one of the most powerful politicians in the Capitol. As Senate Intelligence Committee chair, she battled with the Obama administration over the classified report on the CIA’s torture program following the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001 — commanding respect from Republicans and Democrats alike.

“She was one of the most effective legislators in recent memory because of her willingness to work across the aisle in good faith in order to solve complex problems,” said Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), who served with her on the Judiciary Committee.

Feinstein was also a renowned proponent of gun safety legislation. As fellow advocate Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said on Friday morning: “For a long time, between 1994 and the tragedy in Newtown in 2012, Dianne was often a lonely but unwavering voice on the issue of gun violence.”

Three California House Democrats — Reps. Adam Schiff, Katie Porter and Barbara Lee — are all running for the full six-year term in the 2024 election. Feinstein’s interim replacement will serve through next year, and Newsom’s selection is a fraught choice that’s certain to alienate people.

Newsom had committed at one point to appointing a Black woman if he got a second Senate appointment. But he recently said that, if Feinstein did not complete her term, he would select a caretaker senator rather than Lee, who is running for Feinstein’s seat. Lee excoriated Newsom over those comments.

After winning her fifth full term as a senator in 2018, however, Feinstein began facing health challenges. She stepped down as the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee and passed on serving as the Senate pro tempore, a position that would have placed her in the line of presidential succession.

Yet after a lengthy absence this year following a shingles diagnosis, Feinstein returned to Washington and kept voting to advance President Joe Biden’s judicial nominees and on the Senate floor. She voted to advance a critical spending bill on Thursday morning, but missed two votes on Thursday afternoon.

Her death, confirmed by two people with knowledge of the situation, brings Senate Democrats’ functional majority to 50 votes, with Republicans holding 49 votes. Two other Democratic senators tested positive for Covid this week — and the majority of the caucus is calling on indicted Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) to resign.

Feinstein’s office did not immediately release a statement on her death.

Jennifer Haberkorn and Jeremy B. White contributed.