Critics are highlighting what they say is a double standard against Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) as she faces calls to resign from her post over her health.
Democratic Reps. Ro Khanna (Calif.) and Dean Phillips (Minn.) called on Feinstein, 89, to step down on Wednesday over her prolonged absence from the upper chamber due to her health.
The calls come as other male senators, including John Fetterman (D-Pa.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), have taken leaves of absence for health-related issues in recent months.
On Wednesday, former Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) pointed to absences from male lawmakers, suggesting there was a double standard at play.
“It’s interesting to me. I don’t know what political agendas are at work that are going after Sen. Feinstein in that way. I’ve never seen them go after a man who was sick in the Senate in that way,” Pelosi told reporters, whose comments came shortly before Khanna called on Feinstein to step down.
Other Democratic lawmakers, including Sen. Chris Murphy (Conn.), echoed Pelosi’s sentiment.
“There have been male senators who have been away from the chamber for quite a period of time and haven’t necessarily had this call for resignation,” Murphy said Thursday on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” adding that Feinstein “deserves to have a little time to recover from this injury and illness to be able to get back to the Senate.”
Last month, Feinstein revealed she was hospitalized with shingles. On Wednesday, she asked for a replacement on the Senate Judiciary Committee as she continues to recover and work from home in San Francisco.
“When I was first diagnosed with shingles, I expected to return by the end of the March work period. Unfortunately, my return to Washington has been delayed due to continued complications related to my diagnosis,” Feinstein said in a statement. “I intend to return as soon as possible once my medical team advises that it’s safe for me to travel.
Both Democrats and Republicans have been grappling with health-related absences in recent months. Fetterman, 53, was hospitalized for two months at the Walter Reed Military Medical Center with clinical depression and is set to return to Capitol Hill after the Senate’s April recess.
McConnell, 81, announced on Thursday that he would be returning to the Senate five weeks after suffering a concussion after falling during a private dinner.
Senate Democrats have struggled with the absences of Feinstein and Fetterman, which created a 49-49 deadlock in the chamber. As a result, the party hasn’t been able to move partisan nominees from Senate committees to the floor for votes.
Democrats faced a similar predicament last year when former Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) was recovering from hip surgery, causing some in the caucus to worry that his absence would make it difficult for Democrats to confirm ambassadors, judges and other nominees prior to the midterms.
But the situation surrounding Feinstein is a source of particular consternation for Democrats. While most are sympathetic to her ongoing health issues, some are also expressing concern about the impasse in the upper chamber.
“Both things can be true,” said Tracy Sefl, a prominent Democratic consultant. “There is a real and pervasive double standard for women leaders. And the distinguished senator indeed recognizes the consequence of her presence and votes, evidenced by her asking for a temporary replacement on the Judiciary Committee.”
“What’s true is that the work of that committee to advance President Biden’s judicial nominees may have never been as crucial as it is today,” Sefl added.
One Democratic strategist, who asked for anonymity to discuss the complexities surrounding Feinstein’s absence, acknowledged that it’s a “complicated situation but also can’t be untangled from the California Senate race, both the forces pushing her to resign and Pelosi.”
“There is no question there is a double standard for women in politics generally but in this case, any absence can grind the Senate to a halt,” the strategist said, adding that “we were just hearing people starting to say similar things about Fetterman before his return.”
Fetterman was praised for making the decision to seek mental health treatment, which many saw as a move that would help destigmatize depression. But with Feinstein, critics say her age is a major factor.
“Both parties have plenty of these folks that shouldn’t be in office any longer and at a certain point it becomes sad,” said Adrian Hemond, a Democratic strategist. “I’ve done work for lawmakers before who stayed in office way too long because they were being taken advantage of by people around them, whether that was staff or family members who enjoyed the access that that person’s position gave them, and I think it’s entirely appropriate for Republicans and Democrats to be vocal about the fact that that sucks and it’s no way to run a government.”
In an interview with The Hill in Iowa on Thursday, Khanna defended his calls for Feinstein to step down.
“My intent was not to make a splash, it was simply to say publicly what so many know privately,” Khanna said. “While Sen. Feinstein has had an extraordinary, distinguished career, she’s simply unable now to fulfill her duties.”
But many political observers maintain that there is a double standard in the calls for resignation, pointing to the extended absences of Fetterman and McConnell.
“I don’t recall people reacting by pushing either of them to resign,” said Katherine Jellison, a professor of U.S. women’s and gender history at Ohio University. “And if the issue is a health concern compounded by age, McConnell, like Sen. Feinstein, is in his 80s. So I think if one octogenarian senator with health problems is being pressured to resign and another isn’t, we need to consider what sets them apart from one another.
“Gender is definitely a differentiating characteristic,” Jellison added.
Feinstein would not be the first senator to resign over concerns related to her age or health. In 2019, the late Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) resigned, citing his progressing Parkinson’s disease, surgery and recovery from a fall.