WASHINGTON — When Senator Dianne Feinstein entered a hearing room this month to reclaim her seat on the Senate Judiciary Committee after a monthslong absence, she was accompanied by a phalanx of aides.
Two staff members settled the 89-year-old California Democrat into a chair at the dais as the assembled senators greeted their ailing colleague with a round of applause. When Feinstein spoke — during a vote on one of several of President Biden’s judicial nominees whose approval had awaited her return — she appeared to read from a piece of paper handed to her by a female aide seated behind her.
“I ask to be recorded as voting in person on the three nominees considered earlier, Mr. Chairman, and I vote aye now,” she said.
The aide knelt next to her and whispered into her ear in between votes — popping up repeatedly from her seat to confer with the senator, at one point clearing away the paper Feinstein had read from and presenting her with a folder that appeared to contain background information about the nominees.
The scene was typical of Feinstein’s day-to-day existence on Capitol Hill, where she is surrounded by a retinue of staff members who serve not only the roles of typical congressional aides — advising on policy, keeping tabs on the schedule, drafting statements and speeches — but also as de facto companions to a senator whose age, frail health, and memory issues make it difficult for her to function alone.
Their roles have come under more scrutiny as a number of Democrats and many of Feinstein’s constituents are concerned about her refusal to relinquish a post that she is not capable of fulfilling without heavy and constant reliance on her aides.
They push her wheelchair, remind her how and when she should vote, and step in to explain what is happening when she becomes confused. They stay with her in the cloak room just off the Senate floor, where Feinstein has taken to waiting her turn to vote, then appearing in the doorway to register her “aye” or “nay” from the outer edge of the chamber.
All senators rely heavily on staff. But for years, Feinstein’s memory problems have meant that she has needed far more support than other senators. Briefing her on the news of the day requires longer sessions and more background information.
At times she has expressed confusion about the basics of how the Senate functions. When Vice President Kamala Harris was presiding over the chamber last year in one of many instances in which she was called upon to cast a tiebreaking vote, Feinstein expressed confusion, according to a person who witnessed the scene, asking her colleagues, “What is she doing here?” Staff members have been overheard explaining to her that she cannot leave yet because there are more votes to come.
Since she has returned to work on a limited schedule as she recovers from shingles and multiple serious complications, Feinstein’s staff has made sure she is never alone and is heavily protected. The Capitol Police and the Senate sergeant-at-arms have gone to great lengths to keep Feinstein shielded from photographers and reporters, the Los Angeles Times reported, helping to create a bubble around her as staff runs interference on her behalf.
Reporters have been asked at times to keep a respectful distance from the senator, while aides have tried to hide her from photographers.
It is an awkward task for members of Feinstein’s staff, many of whom go back decades with her. They are wrestling with how to balance their work as public servants with their responsibilities to a diminished lawmaker who remains in charge of representing California’s 40 million residents, and who sometimes makes public statements that are not true.
After The New York Times revealed this month that Feinstein had encephalitis brought on by shingles, a condition that had not been disclosed by her office, she denied the story, telling a CNN reporter who managed to approach her at the Capitol that she had merely had a “bad flu.” Her spokesperson, Adam Russell, later released a statement correcting her and confirming that the senator had encephalitis, which he said had “resolved itself” in March. Russell said she also had Ramsay Hunt syndrome, which can cause facial paralysis.
“They have a responsibility to give her brutally honest counsel and then adhere to her wishes, as she — and not they — were elected,” said David Axelrod, a former top adviser to former president Obama. “And they have an obligation to help her meet her own responsibilities to her state and the office.”
Staff members in Feinstein’s office say they engage in frank conversations with her about her future and are not shielding her from reality. So far, she has insisted that she is able to work and has no plans to leave office before her term ends in 2025; she is not seeking reelection.
Her aides do not issue any statements without Feinstein’s sign-off, and describe her as strong-willed even in her diminished state.
“All senators rely heavily on staff to do the job, particularly a senator who represents 40 million people,” said her chief of staff, James Sauls. “While staff advise her, she ultimately is the one who makes the decision about how to best take action for the people of California.”
For now, her aides have been left to figure out how to make Feinstein’s office work as well as it can in the absence of a fully functional senator. They have done so, some of them said, by relying on the senator’s three decades’ worth of policy positions and explicit systems she put in place long ago that were designed to make her office efficient — and which earned her a reputation for running one of the more demanding workplaces on Capitol Hill.
Feinstein, who aides say has never taken a real vacation, expects the same level of commitment to the job as she puts in.