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Feinstein sometimes gets confused by reporters’ questions, or will offer different answers to the same question depending on where or when she’s asked. Her appearance is frail. And Feinstein’s genteel demeanor, which seems like it belongs to a bygone Senate era, can lead to trouble with an increasingly hard-line Democratic base uninterested in collegiality or bipartisan platitudes.

Just this week, Feinstein infuriated progressives after declaring her opposition to ending the Senate’s legislative filibuster — a top goal of party activists if Democrats win full control of the Congress and White House in November. Some on the left called on her to resign over the comments, although other Democratic moderates have expressed similar views.

In a phone interview, Feinstein pushed back hard against suggestions she could no longer effectively serve as ranking member of the Judiciary panel or is incapable of handling the upcoming nomination fight.

“I’m really surprised and taken aback by this. Because I try to be very careful and I’m puzzled by it,” Feinstein told POLITICO. “My attendance is good, I do the homework, I try to ask hard questions. I stand up for what I believe in.”

Feinstein relies heavily on her ever-present staff to deal with any issues, frequently turning to them for help in responding to inquiries. Feinstein had to be coaxed into wearing a mask around the Senate during the early days of the pandemic, despite being part of the most vulnerable age groups for the disease. She’s only made two floor speeches in the last nine months, her last being in early July, although she remains active in committee hearings.

And then there’s the lingering fallout over Feinstein’s role in the hugely controversial Judiciary Committee hearings for Justice Brett Kavanaugh in 2018, an issue that factors deeply into the questions about her suitability for this latest nomination fight.

Feinstein waited for several weeks before disclosing allegations by Christine Blasey Ford that Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted her when they were teenagers. The bombshell accusations nearly sank Kavanaugh’s nomination, and senators in both parties questioned why Feinstein didn’t move more quickly to disclose Blasey Ford’s statement.

A Democratic senator, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said a group of Feinstein’s colleagues want Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) or Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) to serve as the top Democrat on the Judiciary panel for the upcoming nomination hearings, which are expected to be extraordinarily contentious. This senator is worried that potential missteps by Feinstein could cost Democrats seats.

“She’s not sure what she’s doing,” the Democratic senator said of Feinstein. “If you take a look at Kavanaugh, we may be short two senators because of that. And if this gets [messed] up, it may be the same result.”

“I think it could impact a number of seats we can win,” the senator added.

Another Democratic senator said party leaders were “in an impossible position,” pointing out that Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y) and other senior Democrats can’t replace a female senator for hearings on an expected female nominee to replace a deceased female Supreme Court justice.

However, the senator said there have been discussions among some Democrats about making changes to the seniority system next year due to their concerns over Feinstein. The California Democrat would be Judiciary chair if Democrats win the majority.

A third Democratic senator put it this way: “She can’t pull this off.”

Other Democrats privately said there have been complaints to party leaders that Feinstein is not capable of handling the Judiciary post in the current situation. Some of these senators said Feinstein should have retired rather than run for reelection in 2018 at age 85. Feinstein’s age was an issue in that campaign and was raised repeatedly in news reports, but she defeated Democrat Kevin de Leon by almost 10 points.

Feinstein has already stumbled once in tangling with Amy Coney Barrett, who is widely seen as the frontunner to be Trump’s Supreme Court nominee. At a 2017 hearing for an appeals court seat, Feinstein told Barrett that “the dogma lives loudly within you” — a remark that was instantly seized upon as anti-Catholic bias by Republicans.

Schumer declined to comment on Feinstein or her role on the Judiciary Committee.

To Feinstein, her work on the panel is comparable to what she’s seen from other Democratic ranking members across the Senate.

“And so it’s difficult for me to see, I don’t know what people expect,” Feinstein said. “I’ve been on the committee for a while. I’ve seen how the committee works and I’ve seen how other chairs on our side of the aisle work. I don’t see, to be very blunt and honest, I don’t see a big difference. I’m prepared, so that’s puzzling to me.”

Feinstein also pointed out that as the minority, Democrats only have limited weapons to wield in any nomination fight. McConnell eliminated the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees, so Democrats can slow the confirmation process down, but they can’t stop it as long as Republicans stick together.

“Let me say this — I know it’s going to be a fight, I understand that.” Feinstein said. “I don’t have a lot of tools to use, but I’m going to use what I have. We can try to delay and obstruct but they can run this process through. That doesn’t mean that we won’t fight tooth and nail.”

Feinstein — the first woman to serve as ranking member on Judiciary — has built a long record of legislative success since becoming a senator. She authored the 1994 assault weapons ban, pushed to increase automobile fuel-efficiency standards, and has been a leader on environmental and civil rights issues. Feinstein also led a long probe into the CIA’s post-9/11 interrogation and detention programs that led to the historic 2014 torture report.

When asked whether Feinstein is still capable of doing the job of ranking member, Durbin said, “I believe she is.” Durbin is next in line on the panel behind Feinstein. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) has served longer on Judiciary than any other Democrat, but he serves as ranking member on Appropriations and can’t hold both positions.

Durbin said he wasn’t aware of any discussion over replacing Feinstein. And as to suggestions from some of his colleagues that he should take over the Judiciary post, Durbin added, “I’m not going to get into that speculation.”

Whitehouse, a former U.S. attorney, wasn’t eager to discuss the Feinstein situation either, offering only a terse comment on the matter.

“She’s a very distinguished lady for whom I have great affection,” Whitehouse said, declining to comment any further.

There is recent Senate precedent in both parties for replacing senior senators who are seen as no longer capable of handling the job.

The late Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) was replaced as the chairman of the Armed Services Committee during the late 1990s. And in 2008, the late Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) voluntarily gave up his role as Appropriations Committee chairman. Over on the House side, committee chairs have been forced out at several key panels in recent decades, including Appropriations and Energy and Commerce.

But Feinstein is also not alone when it comes to aging lawmakers in powerful positions.

Feinstein is the second-oldest member of Congress behind Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), who is almost two weeks older. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), chairman of the Finance Committee, is also 87, while Appropriations Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) is 86. Armed Services Chairman Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), who is seeking reelection this year, is 85. The top three House Democratic leaders — Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (Md.) and Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (S.C.) — are all 80. Former Vice President Joe Biden will turn 78 shortly after Election Day and Trump is 74.

Some Judiciary Committee Democrats defended Feinstein and said they see no reason to try to replace her as ranking member.

“She’s an extraordinary person and I’m fully confident in her leadership,” said Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.).

“Her leadership has been really steadfast and courageous,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.). “She has extraordinary insights and instincts based on her vast experience. I see no reason to question this leadership.”

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Delhi sees deadliest month amid raging pandemic

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India has the second highest number of Covid cases in the world. November was the deadliest month for the capital Delhi, which has been struggling to contain the virus, with more than 100 deaths on some days.

The death toll has overwhelmed the Indian capital’s crematoriums, where many families say goodbye to their loved ones in ancient rituals.

A lack of social distancing at the city’s markets has been blamed for the recent uptick. Some hospitals have run out of ICU beds – with pollution and cold weather adding to the burden.

Cases are starting to fall, but doctors warn that if people don’t take care, the situation could get worse again, as the BBC’s South Asia correspondent Rajini Vaidyanathan reports.

Produced by Kunal Sehgal, Shalu Yadav and Greg Brosnan.

Filmed and edited by Varun Nayar.

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India farmers protests: Thousands swarm Delhi against deregulation rules

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Farmers from the nearby states of Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh began arriving by tractors and on foot at the outskirts of New Delhi last week, where they blocked roads and set up makeshift camps, according to protest leaders. Some slept on the road or in their tractors, and several places of worship offered protesters food.

Police attempted to block demonstrators from entering the city. They fired tear gas and water cannons Thursday and Friday after protesters pelted police officers with stones and damaged public property, according to Manoj Yadav, a senior police official from Haryana.

The farmers are protesting laws passed in September, which Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi says will give farmers more autonomy to set their own prices and sell directly to private businesses, such as supermarket chains.

But the move has infuriated India’s farmers, who say that the new rules will leave them worse off by making it easier for corporates to exploit agricultural workers who make up more than half of India’s 480 million-strong workforce, according to India’s most recent Census in 2011.

According to Ashutosh Mishra, the media coordinator of protest organizer All India Kisan Sangharsh Committee, which represents around 200 farming unions, tens of thousands of demonstrators have gathered at each of New Delhi’s three borders — a line of protesters at one of the borders stretches for 30 kilometers (19 miles), he said.

Police have put up barriers and dug up roads to prevent protesters from coming into the city center to hold sit-ins. Mishra expects more farmers from around the country to join the protests in the coming days.

That’s despite New Delhi being a hotspot for Covid-19 in a country that has already reported more than 9.4 million reported cases, the most in any country bar the United States.

“We are trying to be weary of Covid but we don’t have an option — it is a question of life and death,” said Mukut Singh, the president of a farmers union in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, who is leading thousands in protest in his home state, and says he will join the protesters in Delhi later this week.

“We are the ones who have provided food, milk, vegetables when the whole country was in lockdown — we were still toiling in the fields,” he said. “It is the government who has put us at risk by introducing these laws during Covid.”

What the protests are about

For decades, the Indian government has offered guaranteed prices to farmers for certain crops, providing long-term certainty that allows them to make investments for the next crop cycle.

Under the previous laws, farmers had to sell their goods at auction at their state’s Agricultural Produce Market Committee, where they were guaranteed to get at least the government-agreed minimum price. There were restrictions on who could purchase at auction and prices were capped for essential commodities.

Modi’s new laws dismantle the committee structure, allowing farmers to sell their goods to anyone for any price. Farmers have more freedom to do things such as sell direct to buyers and sell to other states.

Modi said increasing market competition would be a good thing as it fulfills farmers’ demands for higher income and gives them new rights and opportunities.

“The farmers should get the advantage of a big and comprehensive market which opens our country to global markets,” Modi said on Monday, as farmers protested in the capital. He hopes it will attract private investment into the agricultural industry, which has lagged as other parts of the country’s economy have modernized.

But farmers argue that the rules could help big companies drive down prices. While farmers could sell crops at elevated prices if the demand is there, conversely, they could struggle to meet the minimum price in years when there is too much supply in the market.

Singh, the Uttar Pradesh farmer, said that removing the price guarantees will make life tougher for farmers.

“There is a lot of anger among farmers,” he said. “We don’t get even the minimum support price that is presently declared — removing these protections and making it easier for corporates to enter will completely buy us out.”

Why it’s such a hot political issues

Agriculture is the primary source of livelihood for about 58% of India’s 1.3 billion population, meaning farmers are the biggest voter block in the country.

That’s made farming a central political issue, with farmers arguing for years to get the minimum guaranteed prices increased.

Security personnel deployed to stop farmers from entering the national capital during a protest against the Centre's new farm laws at Singhu border near Delhi, India on November 30, 2020.
In a bid to win over farmers, Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) said in its 2014 general election manifesto that all crop prices should be fixed at a minimum of 50% higher than the production costs. In 2016, Modi promised to boost the country’s agriculture sector with a target of doubling the income of farmers by 2022.

Modi and his government continue to insist that they are supporting farmers.

He hailed the new laws as a “watershed moment” which will ensure a complete transformation of the agriculture sector. But besides calling the move long overdue, Modi has not said why he opted to introduce these measures during the pandemic, which has caused India to suffer its first recession in decades.

“The Indian government under the leadership of Prime Minister Modi has always stood in full commitment to resolving the problems faced by farmers and will continue to stand by them,” said Narendra Singh Tomar, the Minister of Agriculture and Farmer Welfare.

Tomar urged farmers to abandon their protests and instead discuss their issues with the government — although so far, Modi has shown no sign of capitulating to protesters’ demands.



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House steering panel backs DeLauro for Appropriations chair

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While the full caucus typically backs the Steering Committee’s pick, an upset has occurred as recently as 2014.

Lawmakers and aides watching the race expect it will be decided on a second round of voting for DeLauro and Wasserman Schultz, with allies of the Florida Democrat hopeful she can eke out a win with the help of Kaptur supporters forced to throw their support behind another candidate. The Ohio Democrat is not expected to secure enough support on the first ballot.

Kaptur, 74, the most senior Democrat on the spending panel and the longest-serving woman in Congress, has won support from many members of the Congressional Black Caucus — a powerful bloc that typically respects seniority in leadership elections. Supporters of Wasserman Schultz say she could win if she can secure even some of those votes.

DeLauro’s supporters, however, are confident that the close ally of Speaker Nancy Pelosi and long-time champion of the public health and education communities will be confirmed as chair.

Pelosi typically doesn’t get involved in steering races after she publicly backed Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) in 2014, who won the steering panel’s nod to become the top Democrat on the Energy and Commerce Committee in 2014, only to lose the spot in a stunning caucus-wide vote. The caucus instead chose Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), who went on to become Energy and Commerce chair.

DeLauro — the second-most senior contender for the gavel who controls the largest chunk of nondefense spending as the head of the Labor-HHS-Education subcommittee — has long been expected to lead the appropriations panel and has a reputation for working with senior Republican appropriators like Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.).

DeLauro, 77, is a “work horse” and a “force of nature,” said Rep. Linda Sánchez (D-Calif.), who’s pushing her colleagues to vote for the Connecticut Democrat, in an interview last month. “Her appeal is that she has integrity, that she has wisdom, that she’s such a hard worker and a strong fighter for the issues that she cares about.“

Wasserman Schultz, who chairs the Military Construction-VA spending panel, has been expected to pick up support from freshmen, moderates and some members of the CBC. Supporters point to her robust fundraising for Democrats — particularly for vulnerable members that will be crucial to keeping the House majority in 2022.

Some Democrats said a disappointing Election Day that cost the party more than a half-dozen House seats underscores the need for change, including a more moderate candidate that could bring generational diversity to the leadership ranks.

“I think that in the aftermath of the election, it makes clear that the old ways of doing things just aren’t going to work anymore,” Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.), a co-chair of the moderate Blue Dog Democrats who supports Wasserman Schultz, said last month.

The three Democrats are vying to succeed retiring Chair Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), the first woman ever to lead the spending panel. All three have vowed to make the appropriations process more transparent and accessible to members, while supporting the return of earmarked spending to help Democrats secure cash for pet projects at home.

Heather Caygle contributed to this report.

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