SF Chronicle: Grief and tension collide as Congress mourns Dianne Feinstein amid shutdown chaos

By Shira Stein

Black cloth shrouded her desk, the flags were lowered and lawmakers wept as they remembered the late Sen. Dianne Feinstein Friday morning. Colleagues streamed into the Capitol to share remembrances of the senator, and anxiety built throughout the day as the government lurched toward a shutdown, creating a dark mix of anguish and tension in the chambers.

Feinstein was a treasured mentor who painted watercolor flowers for colleagues, one recounted. She bought other female senators seersucker suits for “seersucker Tuesday.” She gave California’s junior senator his first job in politics.

Those were some of the anecdotes that poured in from members of Congress as news of Feinstein’s death at age 90 spread through the Capitol Friday morning. Nearly every member of the California congressional delegation and a dozen female senators paid their respects to Feinstein in tributes on the Senate floor or stood in a moment of silence in the House.

Some of the earliest mourners to arrive at the Senate doors were Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, and Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Los Angeles, who had both served with Feinstein since 1992. The two women paused, looking through the Senate doors to one of the last places Feinstein stood.

Feinstein had spent her last day on Earth doing what she had done so many times before: voting.

Some members of Congress sat stoically as tributes poured in, while others, like Rep. John Garamendi, D-Fairfield, wiped away tears. Feinstein’s staff sat in the gallery above the Senate floor, where one woman who was often pictured at Feinstein’s side during Judiciary committee hearings sat with her head held high as tears rolled down her face.

California House members stood in the back of the Senate floor, but Pelosi was not with them. She was sitting in the gallery above, at first alone looking shell-shocked, and later stone-faced alongside Feinstein’s daughter, Katherine Feinstein. The two women held each other closely and sat listening to stories of the powerful woman with whom they were both so close.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky blew his nose and cried as his counterpart, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., declared the nation was “a better place because of Sen. Feinstein.”

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who took the role as third in line to the presidency earlier this year when Feinstein declined it, reminded mourners, “Yesterday, the senior senator from California came on to the floor through those doors to do her job. She voted. … That was Dianne. She did her job every day.”

California Sen. Alex Padilla choked up speaking about his “profound sadness” at the loss of his fellow senator, saying that she had a unique ability “to lead with grace and strength in the face of adversity.”

He brought a rare moment of laughter to the mourners, telling the story of when he was sworn into office in 2021 and his family could not be there.

Instead, Feinstein stood with him. When he FaceTimed his family moments later, Feinstein got on the phone with them and told his sons how proud she was of Padilla.

Many noted how Feinstein’s stoicism and moderate tendencies stood in wild contrast to the political gamesmanship at play in Congress as the government careens toward a shutdown. “Dianne was the epitome of what the Senate is losing,” Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said in reference to the senator’s legislative tenacity. “This institution really does need to return to the ways of Dianne Feinstein.”

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, who’s been at odds with far-right members of his caucus on a deal to avoid a shutdown, praised Feinstein as a “trailblazer” and someone with whom he disagreed frequently but “had a lot of respect” for. He said that as Congress mourned Feinstein’s death, he was trying to “work and make sure we don’t shut down” — but also attempted to shift the blame for a potential shutdown.

“The unfortunate thing is, this Senate hasn’t passed anything, and we’ve passed more than 70%t of the procreations of discretionary spending,” he said.

Just seconds after a moment of silence to remember Feinstein, chaos in the form of yet another vote to fund the government — the 13th such vote in the past 24 hours — retook the House.

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