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 Ms. 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 Ms. Feinstein had read from and presenting her with a folder that appeared to contain background information about the nominees.
The scene was typical of Ms. 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 Ms. Feinstein’s constituents are increasingly 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 grows confused. They stay with her in the cloak room just off the Senate floor, where Ms. 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, Ms. 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, Ms. 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, Ms. 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 Ms. Feinstein shielded from photographers and reporters, The Los Angeles Times reported, helping to create a bubble around her as aides run interference on her behalf.
Reporters have been asked at times to keep a respectful distance from the senator, while staff members have tried to hide her from photographers.
It is an awkward task for Ms. Feinstein’s aides, 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 vastly 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 Ms. 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 spokesman, Adam Russell, later released a statement correcting her and confirming that the senator had encephalitis, which he said had “resolved itself” in March. Mr. 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,” David Axelrod, a former top adviser to former President Barack Obama, said. “And they have an obligation to help her meet her own responsibilities to her state and the office.”
Staff members in Ms. 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 re-election.
Her aides do not issue any statements without Ms. 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.”
Yet Ms. Feinstein’s staff has taken heat from critics on the left who have been angered at her refusal to step down immediately, and who argue that her aides are complicit in helping to prop up a lawmaker who should no longer be serving.
This month, a reporter for the Intercept, Ken Klippenstein, posted on Twitter names, salaries and other details of senior and lower-level staff members in Ms. Feinstein’s office, writing that it was “time to name and shame Dianne Feinstein’s staff, all of whom should be blacklisted from politics forever for caring so little about their country that they refuse to resign.”
The posts were condemned by many on the left and right, and ultimately deleted.
For now, her aides have been left to figure out how to make Ms. 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 work places on Capitol Hill.
Ms. Feinstein, who aides say has never taken a real vacation, expects the same level of commitment to the job as she puts in.
Staff meetings have hierarchical seating assignments. All aides are expected to write up what’s known as a “weekly,” a memo detailing their work for the week for the senator to review.
Information is delivered to Ms. Feinstein in color-coded folders. There’s a format in place for submitting vote recommendations to the senator. And the office has a vast library of letters to draw on for responses to some five million pieces of correspondence from constituents it receives every year.
In recent months, the decades-old systems are helping the office run without her, as Ms. Feinstein’s blue-tabbed press folder has been delivered to her, filled with dismal clips about her health, editorials calling for her resignation and polls showing that most California voters want Ms. Feinstein to resign.`
Ms. Feinstein has recently lost some of the staff members who know her and her systems best. David Grannis, her longtime chief of staff, left the office earlier this year in a long-planned move. Her veteran communications director, Tom Mentzer, died in late February.
Still, many of her more senior policy staff members have been with her for over a decade and feel a great sense of loyalty to Ms. Feinstein, and equally dedicated to their issues of expertise. They are continuing their work, communicating with the senator through the phone, memos and faxes. (Yes, the Feinstein office still faxes.)
Since returning to Washington, Ms. Feinstein has missed six votes and has not participated in any committee hearings or caucus lunches. Still, there is a sense among her staff members that the office needs to keep functioning. And the reality of the Senate is that, even with a senator sidelined, an office can run in a fairly normal fashion.
Case workers deal with business that would never have boiled up to a senator’s level: passport renewal requests, providing assistance for those applying for U.S. citizenship, helping those applying to a military service academy or those seeking relief from a federal administrative decision.
Staff members in Washington and California also review appropriations requests according to a long-running system, which now helps them speed up the process that ultimately requires Ms. Feinstein’s approval for funding, even if she’s not there.
And Ms. Feinstein has always been formal, preferring to communicate with her Senate colleagues through letters or memos rather than face to face.
Since she has been back, Ms. Feinstein has co-sponsored legislation to support the development of facilities that make use of timber from wildfire hazardous fuels reduction projects. She also co-sponsored legislation with Senator Marsha Blackburn, Republican of Tennessee, that would allow independent music creators to deduct all of their production expenses in the year they are incurred, rather than down the line.
Still, her aides have taken on an outsized role that Ms. Feinstein might once have found difficult to swallow.
“You can’t let staff run you,” she told her biographer, Jerry Roberts, in the 1990s. “The person in charge has to be the guiding post.”