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Sen. Feinstein, set to win new term, aims to be a bridge builder

Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein says she will keep trying to bridge a partisan divide and be an independent voice for California.

October 22, 2012|By Richard Simon, Los Angeles Times
  • Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) is heavily favored to win reelection.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) is heavily favored to win reelection. (Tom Williams, Roll Call )

WASHINGTON — Sen. Dianne Feinstein recently attended a Capitol Hill hearing, pursuing an unlikely cause for the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee: eggs.

Both the Humane Society of the United States and the United Egg Producers, an industry group, wanted the California Democrat to promote legislation setting national standards for the treatment of hens. "She has the ability to reach across the aisle," said California egg farmer Arnie Riebli.

Feinstein, a Democrat, has spent years trying to establish this kind of reputation — a bridge builder who works to span the Senate's partisan divide. She's made it a theme in what is likely to be her final campaign. Heavily favored to win reelection, she would be 85 at the end of the next six-year term.

California's senior senator held a huge fundraising advantage over Republican challenger Elizabeth Emken, raising more than $13.7 million through Sept. 30, including $5 million she lent to her campaign and has since paid back. Emken raised $718,579, according to the latest reports.

Despite Congress' sorry image — a 13% approval rating in a recent Gallup poll — Feinstein enjoys a 50% job approval rating among likely voters, according to a survey by the Public Policy Institute of California.

And, she said, she feels good.

"I'm in pretty good shape," she said. "I got a good knee," a reference to knee replacement surgery she underwent last year.

The former San Francisco mayor, first elected to the Senate 20 year ago, is only now planning to air her first TV ads. She has rejected her challenger's call for a debate.

"I'm running my own campaign," she said, repeating an often-used message.

"In all my elections, the tag line was: an independent voice for California," said Feinstein, who was once booed at a state Democratic Party convention for supporting the death penalty.

While members of Congress generally stick to partisan stances, "Feinstein has worked very hard over the years to cultivate an image as a centrist and bipartisan problem solver," said Dan Schnur, a former Republican consultant who runs the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC.

Her efforts could become more challenging in a chamber expected to remain closely divided.

"The opportunities for her bipartisanship to really bear fruit legislatively are less, even as her credentials as a centrist have gotten stronger," said John Ullyot, a former Senate Republican staffer.

Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine), a Feinstein friend who has a centrist reputation, cited the hyper-partisanship in Washington in announcing her decision to retire. Feinstein said that she too was frustrated.

"But you keep trying," she said.

She blamed Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell for stoking the divisiveness by declaring that a GOP priority was to make President Obama a one-term leader. She said she hoped to find a more cooperative spirit if Obama was reelected.

Feinstein is expected to gain more clout in the next Congress, moving up in seniority as a result of Senate retirements.

She hopes to retain the gavel of the intelligence panel if Democrats hold onto their Senate majority. The position has made her a leading voice on national security matters, including the government's eavesdropping program and interrogation methods.

Looking ahead, Feinstein lists among her priorities: pushing for renewal of the federal assault weapons ban, despite the long odds; working to reduce massive federal spending cuts that she says could devastate California; and strengthening protection of more than 1 million acres of the Southern California desert.

And she wants that egg bill passed.

Feinstein took up the cause because she fears a 2008 California voter-approved initiative requiring chicken farmers to give egg-laying birds room to stand and spread their wings — and similar legislation in other states — would create a patchwork of rules and hurt interstate commerce in the egg market.

Feinstein is regarded by Republican senators as less combative than many other senators, including fellow California Democrat Barbara Boxer.

"I don't feel like I'm wasting my time talking to Dianne about an issue," Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said. "If I can convince her of the merits of it, then she'll be a reliable partner.

"I hope I don't hurt her chances for reelection," he joked.

Feinstein has worked with Republicans — despite differences over issues such as abortion, gun control and same-sex marriage — to pass tougher vehicle fuel-economy rules and legislation targeting meth labs.

Yet she has drawn criticism for her support of the economic stimulus, the healthcare overhaul law in 2010 and the 2008 Wall Street bailout. She supports Obama's call for allowing income tax rates to rise on annual earnings above $250,000 a year for couples.

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