What Dianne Feinstein’s death means for control of the Senate and the looming government shutdown

Feinstein, a centrist Democrat who had represented California since 1992, had medical struggles in recent months that already had prompted questions about whether she’d resign and who might replace her

Sen. Dianne Feinstein
Sen. Dianne Feinstein asks a question as U.S. Attorney General William Barr testifies before a Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., May 1, 2019.AARON P. BERNSTEIN (REUTERS)

U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s death creates a vacancy in the Senate at a time when her Democrats hold the slightest majority in the chamber.

Feinstein, a centrist Democrat who had represented California since 1992, had medical struggles in recent months that already had prompted questions about whether she’d resign and who might replace her.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom is expected to pick a replacement soon. An election to pick the state’s next senator serving a full six-year term is scheduled for next year.

Here’s a look at what Feinstein’s death means for the Senate at a critical time on Capitol Hill:

How does it impact control of the Senate?

Before Feinstein’s death, Democrats held a 51-49 majority. They had control of 48 seats, plus three independent members who generally vote with Democrats. Until her seat is filled, Democrats will be at least one vote short as they try to advance their priorities. There are no major votes looming in the Senate that are expected to fall totally along party lines.

How will Feinstein’s Senate seat be filled?

Newsom, a Democrat, has the power to appoint a replacement for the rest of her term, which was set to end in January 2025.

The race to replace her in the fall 2024 election is already underway, with a primary scheduled for March.

Justin Levitt, a law professor at Loyola Marymount University who is an expert on election law, said it’s possible Newsom could call a special election to fill the vacancy.

But the most likely scenario is that Newsom will select a Democrat to fill the seat.

How long will her seat be vacant?

It’s not immediately clear how quickly Newsom will move to pick a replacement. No timeline is set forth in state law.

When then-Sen. Kamala Harris left her seat after being elected vice president in 2020, it went vacant for about two weeks until then-Secretary of State Alex Padilla was appointed by Newsom.

Who will replace Feinstein?

Harris’ departure from the Senate left Black women without any representation in the Senate. Newsom was under dual pressures to name either a Black woman or Latino to replace her, and he chose Padilla, who became California’s first Latino U.S. senator. After that, Newsom said that if Feinstein’s seat became vacant, he’d appoint a Black woman.

As Feinstein’s health challenges intensified, California political chatter of potential replacements included obscure names and famous, including Oprah Winfrey.

Newsom, who is seen as a potential 2028 Democratic presidential candidate, will face pressure to make good on his promise. He could choose one of the candidates running in the primary underway to replace Feinstein, though he has said he will not do that. The candidates include U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee, who is Black, along with Democratic Reps. Katie Porter and Adam Schiff, who both are white.

Newsom could choose merely a caretaker to hold the seat as a short-term replacement until someone is elected in November 2024.

San Francisco Mayor London Breed, who is Black, shied away from directly answering a question Friday about whether she would consider serving as a replacement if Newsom chose her.

Newsom could also appoint himself, though that is seen as unlikely.

Is there any impact on the looming shutdown?

The biggest issue Congress is facing is the near-certain shutdown, and there has been overwhelming bipartisan support for Senate spending bills so far.

Still, if Newsom doesn’t appoint a replacement quickly, Senate Democrats could have a more difficult time winning enough votes as they try to keep the government open over the weekend.

It’s unlikely that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and his Republican caucus in the Senate will suddenly side with House Republicans pushing for a shutdown, but if that were to happen, it could make the votes around a shutdown tougher for Democrats.

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