In this April 20, 2021, file photo, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., speaks during a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing to examine the American Jobs Plan, focusing on infrastructure, climate change, and investing in our nation's future on Capitol Hill in Washington. The sweeping $1 trillion infrastructure bill approved by the Senate this week includes funding for Western water projects that farmers, water providers and environmentalists say are badly needed across the parched region.

GOP senators say they won’t stop Democrats from replacing Feinstein on Judiciary Committee

WASHINGTON — Top Republican senators said Friday they won’t try to prevent Democrats from replacing the late Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., on the Judiciary Committee after the vacancy left Democrats without a majority on the key panel.

Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, a senior Republican on the Judiciary Committee, told NBC News that “there’s no doubt in my mind” Democrats will be able to fill her spot on the panel once there is a successor appointed to her Senate seat.

Feinstein’s death means the key panel that processes President Joe Biden’s judicial nominees is now split evenly, 10 to 10, between Democrats and Republicans. A tie vote means a nominee fails to advance out of committee, meaning Democrats would need at least some GOP support to send any potential judges to the full Senate.

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If that vacancy lingers, it could slow down a top Biden priority. But California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, is slated to choose a successor to replace Feinstein, after which Democrats will shuffle committee assignments to fill the vacancy on Judiciary and other panels.

“It’s a prerogative of the Democratic leader to put who he wants on the Judiciary Committee. So I don’t think that’s an issue,” Cornyn said, arguing that it was different when Republicans blocked a temporary swap on the panel earlier this year while Feinstein was absent due to medical leave.

That GOP objection sparked unsubstantiated claims by progressives on social media, as well as by Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, that Republicans would try to permanently block a replacement if Feinstein were to retire or vacate the seat. Those claims resurfaced on Friday, but they remain groundless.

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“The problem was he was willing to try to do that while Sen. Feinstein was still a member of that committee, even though she wasn’t present,” Cornyn said, referring to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. “So that’s the unorthodox procedure.”

Cornyn said that it’s different now that the seat is vacant.

The Senate regularly shuffles committee assignments when one senator is replaced with another mid-session, without controversy. It requires a vote of the chamber, or unanimous consent, to do.

“My assumption is that we’ll observe whatever the precedent is in this situation,” Senate Minority Whip John Thune, R-S.D., said. “I mean, it’s an unfortunate situation, but it’s happened before and I assume that the same rules would apply.”

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, said he isn’t a member of the Judiciary Committee but he expects Democrats to replace Feinstein.

“The world has changed, we’ve become far more divided as a nation and the bases of each party have are far more demanding. And so I can’t predict with certainty, but I think she would be replaced,” he said.

A Democratic leadership aide said changes to Senate committee assignments in the wake of Feinstein’s death “will be decided after a new California senator has been seated.”

Her absence on the Judiciary panel has more impact than on other committees, as nominees require 51 votes to be confirmed, while most legislation requires 60 to break a filibuster.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Dick Durbin, D-Ill., had to repeatedly delay votes on Biden-picked judges earlier this year due to Feinstein’s months-long absence. He said Friday he’s hopeful her seat can be filled without any issues, noting that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell “had some kind words to say about her.”

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“I hope that we can fill her vacancy in her memory in an orderly and cooperative way,” Durbin said. “I’m hopeful that in her memory we can do this in a thoughtful way.”

Sahil Kapur

Sahil Kapur is a senior national political reporter for NBC News.

Frank Thorp V

Frank Thorp V is a producer and off-air reporter covering Congress for NBC News, managing coverage of the Senate.