Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, the Senate’s oldest member, said on Monday that she would relinquish the top Democratic spot on the Judiciary Committee next year, bowing to intense pressure by progressives who said she was not up to the task of leading a crucial panel at the forefront of the partisan war over the courts in a new Biden administration.
“After serving as the lead Democrat on the Judiciary Committee for four years, I will not seek the chairmanship or ranking member position in the next Congress,” Ms. Feinstein, 87, said in a statement. Ms. Feinstein, the former chairwoman of the Intelligence Committee, said she did not intend to pursue committee leadership at all, but would focus more intently instead on the dual threats of wildfire and drought threatening her state.
Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, who is next in seniority, intends to pursue the position, according to his spokeswoman. Mr. Durbin is also the Democratic whip, but caucus rules do not preclude him from doing both jobs.
Progressives had been pushing Democratic leaders hard in recent weeks to bar Ms. Feinstein from returning to her post next year, when Democrats hope they will control the committee. They believed that despite her towering status in the Senate, Ms. Feinstein’s record as a genteel deal-maker made her the wrong fit for an increasingly bruising partisan arena on the Judiciary Committee. Those stylistic differences have been exacerbated by Ms. Feinstein’s advancing age.
Progressives were livid, for instance, when Ms. Feinstein praised Republicans for their handling of Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s Supreme Court nomination hearings last month, even though G.O.P. leaders had broken with precedent and their own professed opposition to election-year confirmations to fast-track the approval of President Trump’s choice before he faced voters. A photograph of the California Democrat hugging the committee’s Republican chairman, Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, after Justice Barrett’s nomination was approved ricocheted across the internet, drawing condemnation from liberal groups.
They feared that under President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s leadership, Ms. Feinstein would be too gentle with Republicans who would seek to block his appointments to the federal courts.
Brian Fallon, the director of the progressive organization Demand Justice, which called for Ms. Feinstein’s removal after the hearings, warned that her replacement “cannot wishfully cling to a bygone era of civility and decorum.”
“It will take someone committed to undoing the damage Trump and McConnell have done to our courts, no matter what it takes,” he said, referring to Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the majority leader, who led a concerted strategy to pack the federal courts with conservatives during Mr. Trump’s tenure.
Ms. Feinstein said she would use her perch as a senior Democrat on four influential committees — Judiciary, Intelligence, Appropriations and Rules — to “work with the Biden administration on priorities like gun safety, immigration reform and addressing inequities in criminal justice.”
“I will continue to do my utmost to bring about positive change in the coming years,” she said.