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As Feinstein Declines, Democrats Struggle to Manage an Open Secret

Democrats have quietly accepted the California senator’s memory issues as the status quo, even as her inner circle frets that the spectacle of her difficulties on the job could tarnish her legacy.

The New York Times , WASHINGTON — Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the trailblazing Democratic power broker who has served in the Senate for 30 years, is far from the towering presence she once was on the American political stage.

At 88, Feinstein sometimes struggles to recall the names of colleagues, frequently has little recollection of meetings or telephone conversations, and at times walks around in a state of befuddlement.

She is increasingly dogged by questions about whether she is fit to serve in the Senate representing the 40 million residents of California, according to half a dozen lawmakers and aides who spoke about the situation on the condition of anonymity.

On Capitol Hill, it is widely — though always privately — acknowledged that Feinstein suffers from acute short-term memory issues that on some days are ignorable, but on others raise concern among those who interact with her.

Feinstein is often engaged during meetings and phone conversations, usually coming prepared and taking notes.

Pressed last week about Feinstein’s ability to serve, Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., the Senate majority leader, neither defended her nor tried to dismiss the issue.

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But hours later, she will often have forgotten those interactions, said the people familiar with the situation, who insisted that they not be named because they did not want to be quoted disparaging a figure they respect.

Some of them said they did not expect her to serve out her term ending in 2024 under the circumstances, even though she refuses to engage in conversations about stepping down.

A recent article in the San Francisco Chronicle, her hometown paper, reported that some of Feinstein’s colleagues believe she is mentally incompetent to serve.

One Democratic lawmaker who had an extended encounter with Feinstein in February said in an interview that the experience was akin to acting as a caregiver for a person in need of constant assistance.

The lawmaker recalled having to reintroduce themself to the senator multiple times, helping her locate her purse repeatedly and answering the same set of basic, small-talk questions over and over again …

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