WASHINGTON (AP) — Senate Democrats advanced three of President Joe Biden’s judicial nominees along party lines Thursday after weeks of delay due to California Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s extended absence.
With Feinstein back in the Senate, and voting in the committee, the panel approved three federal district court judge nominations that had been stalled: Charnelle Bjelkengren of Washington state, S. Kato Crews of Colorado and Marian Gaston of California. Feinstein’s 10-week absence recovering from shingles meant that the committee’s votes were tied along party lines and Democrats could not move forward with any nominees without Republican support.
Feinstein’s return came after weeks of angst among Democrats and liberal advocacy groups about a backlog of nominations on the panel, even as the committee voted out several judges with bipartisan support.
In an unusual request, Feinstein had asked to be temporarily replaced on the panel while she remained out of the Senate. But Republicans last month blocked a vote, saying there was little precedent for a temporary committee replacement and that they didn’t want to help Democrats confirm the most partisan judges. Two weeks later, Democrats said that Feinstein would return to Washington.
The 89 year-old California senator, the longest-serving Democrat in the current Senate, returned Wednesday after her bout with shingles and cast a vote on the Senate floor looking noticeably thinner and using a wheelchair. Her office said she would operate on a reduced schedule as she continues to recover.
At the Judiciary meeting Thursday, she arrived in a wheelchair but walked to her seat on the dais, receiving a standing ovation. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said he spoke for all of them “with feelings of relief and support for our colleague Senator Feinstein.”
The panel did not hold a vote on Michael Delaney, a nominee for the Boston-based 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, who has generated some rare concern from Democrats and advocacy groups over his signature on a legal brief defending a parental notification law for abortion in New Hampshire.
Durbin said after the vote that the nomination currently doesn’t have enough support — meaning some Democrats are not ready to vote for him.
“It wasn’t the right moment,” Durbin said of Thursday’s meeting. “We’ll see.”
Republicans railed against the three judicial nominees approved along party lines. Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas said the nominees were part of a “small subset” of Biden’s judicial nominations who are so extreme that they “could not have a prayer of getting even a single Republican vote on this committee.”
Cruz noted that South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, the top Republican on the Judiciary panel, votes for most of Biden’s judicial picks. But Graham did not support those judges.
GOP senators, including Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, had criticized the three judges approved along party lines for their partisan ideologies or what they said was a lack of experience and knowledge of the law. Bjelkengren was unable to answer basic questions from Louisiana Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., about articles of the Constitution during her confirmation hearing earlier this year.
Durbin defended the nominees, including Bjelkengren’s stumbles during her questioning from Kennedy. “One response during a hearing does not negate a lifetime of service,” he said.
The committee approved three other federal judge nominations with bipartisan support at the beginning of the meeting. Feinstein, who arrived around an hour and a half after the hearing started, was not present for those votes but voiced her support once she arrived.
All six judge nominations approved by the panel on Thursday will now move to the Senate floor for final confirmation votes.
Even with a reduced schedule, Feinstein’s return will give Democrats more room to maneuver in their narrow 49-51 majority – not only on the Judiciary panel but on the Senate floor and during the upcoming negotiations over raising the nation’s debt ceiling.
Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat on the Judiciary panel, said Feinstein’s return enables Democrats to have their full majority again. Several other senators have been absent for medical reasons this year, including Pennsylvania Sen. John Fetterman, a Democrat who received treatment for clinical depression.
“I’m energized and ecstatic” to move forward on Biden’s nominees and other Democratic priorities, Blumenthal said.