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Feinstein rises -- but faces a tough choice

With a Democrat returning to the White House, California's senior senator is in a top position (and characteristically butting heads with her party). But she might leave it all to run for governor.

January 17, 2009|Mark Z. Barabak and Richard Simon

SAN FRANCISCO AND WASHINGTON — As Barack Obama and his fellow Democrats celebrate their political ascendancy, Dianne Feinstein is front and center. And that is not always a welcome thing for members of her own party.

In recent days Feinstein has sent an unmistakable signal to the president-elect and the rest of Washington: California's senior senator will not be taken for granted or hew to the party line simply because that might seem proper at the rosy dawn of a new Democratic era.

"I think people expect me to do what I think is the right thing," Feinstein said in an interview in her Capitol Hill office. "I've been here now for 16 years, and there's no sense in staying if I can't express my view, if I just have to go along."

At age 75, facing perhaps the last big political decision of her decades-long career, Feinstein finds herself in a familiar place: crosswise with members of her own party and enveloped in a swirl of will-she-or-won't-she speculation about mounting another run for governor.

The choice is not easy. Feinstein has long dreamed of holding the state's top job, and if she runs in 2010, she would be the instant front-runner. But running, and winning, would mean walking away from the chairmanship of the Senate Intelligence Committee -- a job never before held by a woman -- and giving up more clout than she has ever enjoyed on Capitol Hill.

Feinstein insists that the looming decision has nothing to do with her recent clashes. And those who know her well agree that she is following a path set long ago. After all, the former San Francisco mayor marked her first headline appearance at a state Democratic Party convention nearly 20 years ago by thumbing her nose at liberals and drawing a shower of boos for embracing the death penalty.

"She is someone who is persuaded by facts. She is not persuaded by 'You're supposed to do so and so because you're a Democrat, or a woman, or a Californian,' " said Kam Kuwata, a longtime Feinstein confidant and political advisor. "She isn't someone who walks into a meeting and says, 'Give me the talking points.' "

Feinstein explains the latest dust-ups simply: She was asked questions, and she answered them directly.

First, she lobbed a shell into Obama's lap by criticizing his surprise selection of Leon E. Panetta to head the CIA. Even though Panetta is a fellow Californian and a philosophical ally of Feinstein's, the senator said she would have preferred someone with a more extensive intelligence background, as well as some deferential notice of the pending appointment. (After Obama called and apologized -- and Panetta assured her that he would surround himself with "very capable professionals" -- Feinstein said she would back the former Monterey congressman and White House chief of staff.)

Then she broke with Democratic colleagues and almost single-handedly undermined the party's united front by saying that Roland Burris had a legal right to fill Obama's Senate seat, even though he was appointed by Illinois' scandal-tainted governor. Burris was seated Thursday.

The fit of pique and flashes of independence were nothing new for Feinstein. She regularly tormented the Clinton administration, when her party last held the White House, and has exasperated Senate Democrats by breaking with the party on more than one occasion, including supporting President Bush's 2001 tax cut and the invasion of Iraq.

"A royal pain," said one former Clinton administration official who worked with Feinstein on a number of matters and did not want to be identified criticizing the senator. Others were less reluctant.

"We're in a revolutionary moment right now, where once-in-a-lifetime change may be possible," said Ben Austin, a Los Angeles education consultant and political aide in the Clinton White House. "Democrats can't squander this moment forming circular firing squads over things like courtesy phone calls."

But the Senate's second-ranking Democrat, Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, was more diplomatic. "Dianne has always had an independent streak. I know it and appreciate it. Sometimes it helps, and sometimes it doesn't. But I respect her very much for it," he said.

Feinstein described a cordial, if not especially close, relationship with Obama. She endorsed Hillary Rodham Clinton in the presidential primaries, though she was among those urging Clinton to reconsider her candidacy when Obama gained the edge. She opened her Washington home to the duo for a private meeting as Obama and Clinton began mending their relationship.

Last week's phone call from Obama, Feinstein said, is already one more than she received from Bush in his eight-year administration. (The two talked extensively only twice, Feinstein said, when they flew to California together to observe wildfire damage.)

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