Washington, DC – Dianne Feinstein, the longest-serving woman in the United States Senate, has died at age 90, US media outlets reported.
The cause of death was not immediately clear. The Associated Press and other news outlets reported that Feinstein died on Friday, citing unidentified sources.
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The California lawmaker, who was the oldest member of the Senate, had suffered mounting health problems, including a battle with shingles.
Often described by supporters as a trailblazer in US politics, Feinstein had said earlier this year that she would not seek re-election in 2024.
“This is a sad day for California and the nation. [Senator] Feinstein was a champion for our state, and served as the voice of a political revolution for women,” California Congresswoman Barbara Lee said on social media on Friday.
This is a sad day for California and the nation.
Sen. Feinstein was a champion for our state, and served as the voice of a political revolution for women.
My profound condolences go out to her family and loved ones.
— Barbara Lee (@BarbaraLeeForCA) September 29, 2023
Feinstein was elected in 1992 as the first woman to represent California in the US Senate and quickly rose to become a key figure in the Democratic Party, playing prominent roles on committees and passing key legislation.
In 2014, her office led efforts to release a report that detailed a torture programme run by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) that saw individuals detained across the world in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.
But the senator’s career had been derailed in recent years by health issues. That included reports that she suffered from short-term memory loss, spurring claims that she may be mentally unfit to serve.
Still, Feinstein, who faced calls to step down in recent months, consistently defended herself as an effective legislator.
“Even with a divided Congress, we can still pass bills that will improve lives. Each of us was sent here to solve problems,” she said in a statement in February announcing her decision not to run again next year.
“That’s what I’ve done for the last 30 years, and that’s what I plan to do for the next two years,” she said, pledging to finish her term in office. “My thanks to the people of California for allowing me to serve them.”
‘Quite a legacy’
Democratic National Committee (DNC) chairman Jaime Harrison said on Friday that he was “heartbroken” by Feinstein’s death. “She was a force for good and a titan of American politics,” he wrote in a social media post.
President Joe Biden, who served alongside Feinstein in the Senate for 15 years, described her as a “pioneering American” who was sharp, “tough”, and loyal.
“Dianne made her mark on everything from national security to the environment to protecting civil liberties. She’s made history in so many ways, and our country will benefit from her legacy for generations,” Biden said in a statement.
Senator Feinstein was a nothing short of an icon for women in politics—and when Californians asked her for help and support, she was always there.
She was fearless, and dedicated to a life of public service. May she rest in peace, and her legacy live on—forever.
— Rep. Lou Correa (@RepLouCorrea) September 29, 2023
Al Jazeera’s Patty Culhane, reporting from Washington, DC, said Feinstein has left behind “quite a legacy”.
She was the first woman to serve as head of the Senate Intelligence Committee “and it’s hard to overstate just how important that position is”, Culhane said.
The senator faced criticism from some progressives over the years, including for supporting the 2003 US invasion of Iraq.
But in a major legislative achievement, Feinstein authored a bill that banned assault weapons in the US in 1994. The ban expired in 2004, but Democrats have been calling for it to be renewed amid frequent mass shootings.
Democratic Senator Chris Murphy, a vocal advocate of gun control, heaped praise on Feinstein on Friday.
“The modern anti-gun violence movement, now stronger than the gun lobby, would not exist but for Dianne,” he wrote on social media.
Many Republicans also lauded the late senator. Chuck Grassley, a key Republican who is now the oldest senator at age 90, said he had a “wonderful working relationship” with Feinstein when they served on various committees.
“Feinstein did an outstanding job representing the [people] of California,” he wrote.
Replacing the senator
Feinstein’s death will affect next year’s race to replace her in the Senate, as California Governor Gavin Newsom now needs to appoint someone to fill the vacancy until Feinstein’s term ends in January 2025.
The appointee would have a major advantage as an incumbent in next year’s election.
Lee, the California congresswoman, along with fellow Democratic House members Katie Porter and Adam Schiff are vying for the seat.
Newsom has already appointed California’s other senator – Alex Padilla – to replace Kamala Harris, who vacated the seat in 2021 to serve as Biden’s vice president.
The governor had previously said that he would tap a Black woman to succeed Feinstein should she fail to finish her term.
Senator Feinstein was a trailblazer for women in California politics, and her leadership on gun violence prevention and anti-torture made our nation more just. I wish her loved ones strength during this difficult time.
— Rep. Katie Porter (@RepKatiePorter) September 29, 2023