A previous version of this article incorrectly said that Sen. Karl Mundt represented North Dakota. He represented South Dakota. The article has been corrected.
The prolonged absence of Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) for health reasons poses a major challenge to Democrats as it has stalled President Biden’s judicial nominees and Republicans are unwilling to help, blocking a temporary replacement for Feinstein on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
But while Feinstein’s health problems at 89 have forced her to miss weeks and votes in Washington since February, her case is not a new one in a Congress in which senators have been absent for extended periods of time.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.) returned to the upper chamber Monday after health absences. McConnell, 81, fell and suffered a concussion and a broken rib at a private dinner at a Washington hotel in early March. Fetterman, 53, was treated for clinical depression after checking himself into the hospital in February. Senators Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) and Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) both suffered strokes last year that caused them to take brief leaves.
Some other notable examples throughout history have included:
Beginning in 1942, Sen. Carter Glass (D-Va.) began to decline in health to the point that he could not attend committee hearings or other Senate events. But Glass refused to resign from his congressional committees and chairmanships despite his constituents petitioning the courts to remove him. He died, in office, in 1946.In 1969, Sen. Karl Mundt (R-S.D.) suffered a stroke and was absent from the Senate for the final three years of his term in Congress.In 1988, Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.) was rushed to the hospital for surgery for a brain aneurysm and was given Catholic Last Rites, underscoring the severity of his illness. Biden suffered a pulmonary embolism and then later a second aneurysm. His recovery kept him out of the Senate for several months.In December 2006, Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) suffered bleeding in the brain during a live radio interview and was taken by ambulance to a hospital to undergo surgery to drain the blood and stem the bleeding. Johnson spent several months in recovery and returned to senatorial duties in September 2007 to a standing ovation.In May 2008, Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor after suffering a seizure at his home. He underwent surgery in June and, after cancer treatments, returned to the Senate to work on health-care legislation. But by June 2009, Kennedy had not voted in the Senate for three months. He went on leave that month and died in August of that year.In 2012, Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) suffered a stroke. He was absent from the Senate for nearly a year.In 2017, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) was diagnosed with a brain tumor after surgery to remove a blood clot above his left eye. He returned to the Senate less than two weeks after that surgery and cast a legacy-defining vote that preserved the Affordable Care Act. He did not vote in the Senate after December 2017, instead focusing on cancer treatment. He died in August 2018.In 2019, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) was hospitalized after he suffered a heart attack during his campaign for president. Sanders’s team defended his health but acknowledged that the event would change how he campaigned.
Some senators are also known to take leaves of absence without any explanation. That is especially true for senators, both Democratic and Republican, who run for president.
While the absence of a senator has at times caused political problems for a party, it has never coalesced into a successful bid to oust a lawmaker from office. No member of Congress has ever been removed or replaced for incapacitation.
Feinstein, who is recovering from shingles, gives Democrats an 11-10 advantage on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which holds confirmation hearings and advances nominations of the president’s judicial choices. With her absence, the committee is deadlocked, leaving Democrats thwarted in their effort to swiftly move nominations over Republican objections.
Senate rules say that for Feinstein to be replaced on the panel — a move she has requested — Democrats would have to get unanimous consent from every senator or at least 60 votes for a resolution. McConnell made clear Tuesday that he would oppose such a replacement, joining other Republicans in opposition to the move.
Frustrated by the delay on filling judicial vacancies, some liberal Democrats have called for Feinstein to resign.