Feinstein’s Memory Lapses Prompt New Cognition Concerns

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) returned to the Senate last week after a months-long absence, but her return has raised new concerns about her ability to continue in office. 

Reporters from Slate and The Los Angeles Times encountered her in the Capitol shortly after her voting and asked about her absence from the Senate, but she appeared not to remember missing any time. 

“I haven’t been gone,” the 89-year-old said. “I’ve been working.”

When one of the reporters asked if she had been working from home, she said “No, I’ve been here. I’ve been voting.”

Feinstein was absent from the Senate from February until May, ill with shingles. In a statement released when she returned to Washington, she said she’s still suffering from its effects as she recovers and, under doctors’ orders, is keeping to a lighter schedule. Since returning, she has also frequently used a wheelchair to get around, though has been seen walking short distances. 

With the Democrats holding only a 51-49 majority in the Senate, her absence has prevented much work. In particular, she serves as the ranking member of the Committee on the Judiciary and without her, they haven’t had the votes to move nominations forward.

Last year, reports emerged that she was struggling to recognize people she’d known for years or follow discussions with aids. One former staffer even described her memory as “rapidly deteriorating.”

Although she has already announced she will not seek reelection in 2024, her absence and apparent cognitive decline have led several members of the Democratic Party to call for her to resign, most notably Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA). Democrats are concerned about Feinstein following the precedent of Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, remaining in office too long and ultimately helping the Republicans. However, there is a difference: the Supreme Court is appointed by the president, but California hasn’t elected a Republican to the Senate since Pete Wilson was re-elected in 1988.

Feinstein was first elected to the Senate in a special election in 1992. Before that, she served on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. She became Mayor of San Francisco in 1978, following the murder of Mayor George Moscone by disgruntled former Supervisor Dan White, who also murdered gay rights icon Harvey Milk at the same time. She served as mayor until 1988.