Hillary Clinton weighed in this week on a question that has occupied Senate Democrats and much of the party at large for months: whether Senator Dianne Feinstein of California should resign in light of mounting health problems that have made it difficult for her to do her job.
Mrs. Clinton’s answer was no — but largely based on anticipation that Republicans would exploit the vacancy, not on an evaluation of Ms. Feinstein’s health or performance.
“Here’s the dilemma: The Republicans will not agree to add someone else to the Judiciary Committee if she retires,” she told Time magazine on Monday, in an interview published Tuesday night. “I want you to think about how crummy that is. So I don’t know what’s in her heart about whether she really would or wouldn’t, but right now, she can’t. Because if we’re going to get judges confirmed, which is one of the most important continuing obligations that we have, then we cannot afford to have her seat vacant.”
Mrs. Clinton suggested that her answer might be different “if Republicans were to say and do the decent thing.” But, she added, “They won’t say that.”
Ms. Feinstein is recovering from shingles, encephalitis and Ramsay Hunt syndrome, all of which kept her out of the Senate for more than two months until early May. She has also been experiencing memory loss and faced some calls to step down even before her latest health problems. But it was her recent absence, which prevented Democrats from advancing some judicial nominations, that caused those calls to spread from mostly left-leaning voters to even a few Democratic colleagues in Congress.
In response to the growing pressure, Ms. Feinstein asked in April to be temporarily replaced on the Judiciary Committee, but Senate Republicans refused to allow it.
It is not clear whether Republicans would continue to hold the seat open if Ms. Feinstein resigned. At least one Republican senator who objected to a temporary replacement, Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, has said he would support a permanent replacement. And refusing to fill an official vacancy would be a bigger breach of precedent than declining to fill an informal one.
“If she does resign, I would be in the camp of following the precedent of the Senate, replacing the person, consistent with what we have done in the past,” Mr. Graham told CNN last month.
But given Senate Republicans’ own precedent — they refused to let President Barack Obama fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court in 2016 on the basis that the next election was too close, and then let President Donald J. Trump fill vacancies even closer to the 2018 and 2020 elections — Mrs. Clinton’s worry is not unfounded.