In the Senate, happy returns and a vacancy

York Dispatch editorial board

Pennsylvania Sen. John Fetterman returned to the Senate last week in seemingly good spirits and with positive words.

“It’s great to be back,” he told reporters last Monday, as the body reconvened after a two-week recess. The first-term Democrat had been absent since February, when he checked himself into the Walter Reed Medical Center for treatment of clinical depression.

Having successfully completed a six-week regimen, Fetterman, who sustained a stroke during the campaign last May, opened up about the experience with People magazine — and offered bipartisan words of advice.

FILE - Sen. John Fetterman, D-Pa., leaves an intelligence briefing on the unknown aerial objects, at the Capitol in Washington, Feb. 14, 2023. A person close to Fetterman says he'll return to the Senate in April, two months after the freshman Democrat sought inpatient treatment for clinical depression. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

“I don’t care if you’re a liberal or conservative, Republican or Democrat, we all can be depressed — and we all can get made healthier,” he told the magazine. “Address your depression.”

Whichever political lens it’s viewed through, it’s good to see a healthy Fetterman back in the Senate.

Adopting his bipartisan spirit, the same should be said of Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who also returned last week after an extended absence. He, too, was out of commission for about six weeks, in his case as the result of a fall that left him with a fractured rib and a concussion.

Of course, the Senate is not yet in full force. California’s senior senator, Democrat Dianne Feinstein, has been away for two months battling shingles and related health issues. Her staff initially said she was expected to be back in a matter of weeks but a return date for the 89-year-old lawmaker has remained open-ended.

From left, Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts arrive to the Senate chamber for impeachment proceedings at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, Jan. 16, 2020. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images/TNS)

Increasingly frail health and her age had already prompted Feinstein to announce she would not seek reelection in 2024. With her return to the Senate cloudy and a lengthening line of President Joe Biden’s judicial nominees awaiting approval by the closely divided Judiciary Committee on which she sits, the senator last week asked Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to temporarily replace her on the committee.

Easier requested than done.

The maneuver would need 60 — i.e., several Republican — votes in the Senate and McConnell, in no mood to emulate Fetterman’s bipartisan bonhomie, said nothing doing.

While Schumer and Feinstein herself hold out hope that she may be able to return in reasonably short order, the lack of a timeline has contributed to a small but growing chorus of calls for the Democrats’ longest-tenured senator to resign.

One Democratic colleague — on paper, anyway — has been particularly full-throated.

“She hasn’t been showing up, and she has no intention,” California Rep. Ro Khanna said in urging Feinstein to step down. “It’s one thing to take medical leave and come back. It’s another thing when you’re just not doing the job.” 

That’s not only disrespectful to a public servant with 30-plus years’ service in the Senate, it’s unseemly — and “sexist,” say Feinstein’s colleagues, including some from across the aisle.

“I don’t know if it’s age discrimination (or) sex discrimination, but we do know they wouldn’t do it to a man,” said Tennessee Republican Sen. Marsha Blackburn.

She’s got a point. There were no suggestions from politicians of any stripe that Fetterman or McConnell should consider retiring amid their health concerns. And as the New York Times recently noted, former Sens. Tim Johnson, a South Dakota Democrat, and Mark Kirk, an Illinois Republican, missed about a year each with serious illnesses in 2006 and 2012 respectively with nary a call for resignation.

After a lifetime of public service that has included 10 years as the mayor of San Francisco and three decades in the Senate, Feinstein has earned the right to dictate the terms of her departure.

That said, she needs to be honest with the American people, and herself, if the time comes where she feels she cannot return.

There’s nothing wrong with holding her seat open in the expectation she will once again be able to fill it. As to whether that expectation can be met, Feinstein — and, for now, only Feinstein — gets to decide.