Dianne Feinstein has died at the age of 90, leaving a vacancy on the powerful Judiciary Committee and shrinking the Senate Democratic majority to 50 seats, which is further complicated by the criminal indictment of Senator Bob Menendez.
A long-serving Democratic U.S. senator from California and gun control advocate who spearheaded the first federal assault weapons ban and documented the CIA’s torture of foreign terrorism suspects, Feinstein was a Washington trailblazer who, among other accomplishments, became the first woman to head the influential Senate Intelligence Committee.
Feinstein’s physical and mental decline was the subject of a significant debate earlier this year after she missed several months of work following a rough bout with shingles.
Feinstein returned to Washington in May and has been voting sporadically on the Senate floor and in committee. She voted on the Senate floor as recently as Thursday.
Feinstein’s death will set off a scramble in California as Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom is expected to appoint a caretaker for her seat to serve through the 2024 election.
Newsom previously promised to appoint a Black woman to fill the seat temporarily should Feinstein step down before her term ends in January 2025. There are currently no Black women serving in the Senate.
California Democratic Reps. Barbara Lee, Adam Schiff, and Katie Porter are all running for the full six-year term to be decided in next year’s election.
“Dianne Feinstein was a force to be reckoned with,” said Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand. “She was one of the most powerful voices in the Senate, and she blazed a trail for generations of women who followed her into elected office. I was so grateful to have her as my role model, my mentor, and a dear friend.”
During almost 31 years in the Senate, she amassed a moderate-to-liberal record, sometimes drawing scorn from the left. Feinstein joined the Senate in 1992 after winning a special election and was reelected five times, including in 2018, along the way becoming the longest-serving woman senator ever.
A former mayor of San Francisco, Feinstein was the oldest member of the Senate. Feinstein had been struggling with her health and had stubbornly refused to leave office even after she had missed some key votes in the Capitol.
“She didn’t feel well this morning,” Sen. Dick Durbin said Thursday, when Feinstein was unable to attend a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.
Punchbowl News first reported the news of Feinstein’s death.
Feinstein had taken part in Senate votes on Thursday morning.
Feinstein had to rely on a wheelchair to get around the Senate after she missed nearly three months of work in Washington because of a severe bout with shingles earlier this year.
She was first elected to the Senate in 1992, which became known as the Senate’s “year of the woman” after Sens. Patty Murray, Carol Moseley Braun, and Barbara Boxer were elected that same year.
She became San Francisco’s mayor in 1978 upon the assassinations of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk.
Feinstein was president of the San Francisco County Board of Supervisors when Moscone and Milk were gunned down by a former supervisor, Dan White. After hearing the gunshots, she rushed to Milk’s office. While searching for his pulse, her finger found a bullet hole.
Feinstein said the horror of that experience never left her and she went on to author the federal ban on military-style assault weapons that lasted from 1994 until its 2004 expiration.
“This is a gun-happy nation, and everybody can have their gun,” Feinstein said after a 2021 mass shooting in California as she lamented years of congressional failure to pass new gun control laws to guard against “the killing of innocents.”
California Gov. Gavin Newsom will appoint her temporary replacement.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) praised Feinstein, saying, “She’s a legend. A legend in California as the first woman senator. A legend in the Senate. She was the leader on so many different issues.”
Former Speaker Nancy Pelosi called Feinstein “an icon for women in politics.”
Republican Sen. Thom Tillis (N.C.), who served with Feinstein on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said, “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.”