On Monday, the Senate’s most senior Democrat, Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, announced his intent to retire in early 2023.
If Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., serves the remainder of her term, then she will become the chamber’s most senior Democrat… and third in line for succession to the presidency.
At 88 years of age, that’s a very troubling thought. Feinstein reportedly has had trouble remember basic instructions and briefings.
And she could be elevated to the presidency.
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Since 1949, the Senate has chosen the most senior member of the majority party to serve as Senate president pro tempore. In the vice president’s absence, the Senate president pro tempore can oversee the Senate. For example, Leahy presided over the second impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump.
The Senate president pro tempore also stands third in line for the presidency.
According to the 1947 Presidential Succession Act, if the U.S. president, the vice president, and the House speaker all become incapacitated, then the Senate president pro tempore becomes… president of the United States. The Senate president pro tempore is ahead of the secretary of state.
If the Democrats still control the Senate after Leahy’s departure, then Feinstein will presumably become Senate president pro tempore.
Not every Democrat is happy about this news.
Feinstein ranks as the oldest member of the Senate; she will turn 89 shortly before next year’s midterm elections. Many Democrats worry about Feinstein’s very advanced age and its impact on her performance.
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During a hearing in November 2020, Feinstein asked the same question twice, back-to-back, with the same wording and delivery. She later resigned from her ranking membership on the judiciary committee amid concerns about her short-term memory.
Jane Mayer, an investigative reporter at The New Yorker, interviewed Feinstein’s staffers after the incident.
Many others familiar with Feinstein’s situation describe her as seriously struggling, and say it has been evident for several years.
Speaking on background, and with respect for her accomplished career, they say her short-term memory has grown so poor that she often forgets she has been briefed on a topic, accusing her staff of failing to do so just after they have.
They describe Feinstein as forgetting what she has said and getting upset when she can’t keep up.
One aide to another senator described what he called a “Kabuki” meeting in which Feinstein’s staff tried to steer her through a proposed piece of legislation that she protested was “just words” which “make no sense.”
Feinstein’s staff has said that sometimes she seems herself, and other times unreachable.
“The staff is in such a bad position,” a former Senate aide who still has business in Congress said. “They have to defend her and make her seem normal.”
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Jordan Uhl, a journalist and left-wing organizer, tweeted a screenshot from Mayer’s report next to a headline about Leahy’s retirement.
Feinstein’s current term ends in January 2025, after her 92nd birthday. She hasn’t publicly said whether or not she intends to run for reelection.
— jordan (@JordanUhl) November 16, 2021
The Horn editorial team