California Sen. Dianne Feinstein and the state's Democratic Party pushed back Wednesday against a proposal by a coalition of progressives to censure the four-term senator for her recent votes siding with the Bush Administration, dismissing the proposal as a distraction put forth by activists who did not speak for the majority of Democrats in the Golden State.
Feinstein's office defended what they called her record of standing up to Bush, citing her role in recent probes into allegations of partisan firing at the Justice Department, as well as her votes against the Supreme Court nominations of Chief Justice John Roberts and Samuel Alito.
"She led the Judiciary Committee investigation into [former Attorney General] Alberto Gonzales and the firing of the U.S Attorneys," said Feinstein spokesman Scott Gerber. "What Sen. Feinstein is going to continue to do is fight for this issues that are important for all Californians."
On Monday, a coalition of progressive Democrats said they would ask the California Democratic Party to censure Feinstein at its executive board meeting this weekend, citing her recent votes in favor of confirming Attorney General Michael Mukasey and controversial appeals court judge Leslie Southwick.
They argued that in backing the Bush Administration's nominees, Feinstein had lost touch with the core principles of her party's base.
State party insiders Wednesday predicted the censure resolution would almost certainly be swiftly defeated when the party gathers in Anaheim, outside Los Angeles.
They said its supporters made up a small minority of Democrats with a big bullhorn, and dismissed the censure as a mere distraction for party members focusing on recapturing the White House in 2008.
"It is going to be thrown out and rejected," said Bob Mulholland, a veteran party strategist in Sacramento. "Sometimes people can't anticipate or can't understand the big picture."
State Democratic Party Chairman Art Torres did not return messages seeking comment. But his spokesman Roger Salazar told the Sacramento Bee, "this party supports our Democratic senator and will continue to do so...Period."
Rick Jacobs, founder of the Courage Campaign, one of the progressive organizations backing the censure resolution, said such statements sent the wrong message to California Democrats.
"I'm concerned that party employees don't want to hear from party members," Jacobs said. "I think such statements send a message that is very simple: that we will make the decisions and you shut up and do as you're told."
Democratic Party rules are stacked against any censure resolution, and the reaction of party leaders had been widely anticipated.
Yet the mere existence of a movement to censure a veteran politician who enjoys high approval ratings - 70 percent of Democrats approved of Feinstein's job performance in an October KABC/SurveyUSA poll - indicates the deep anger felt among grassroots activists over her recent statements and votes.
The censure resolution is seen as one of the only ways the progressive wing of the party's base can get the attention of a senator who they say ignores them. Jacobs said he was not aware of any attempt by Feinstein's camp to reach out to those pushing censure, and Feinstein's spokesman said no specific meetings had been scheduled to address their concerns.
"Sen. Feinstein has done a lot of good for California and the country, there is no question about that," Jacobs acknowledged. "But these are fundamental, essential issues. Issues relating to human rights, issues relating to the Constitution."
To add to the progressives' concerns, Feinstein announced last week that she now supports granting legal immunity to telecom companies that shared customer email and phone messages with the federal government as part of the Bush Administration's warrantless surveillance program.
The shift amounts to nothing less than a betrayal for the same groups pushing the censure resolution.
The Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to consider the wiretapping legislation Thursday. On the eve of the committee's meeting Democratic staffers on Capitol Hill began circulating language that would shift legal responsibility for the telecom company's activities to the the government.
On Wednesday several marquee liberal organizations launched concurrent campaigns targeting Feinstein.
MoveOn asked its members to telephone Feinstein's office and ask her to oppose any move to grant the telecom companies immunity from prosecution.
Another group, Democracy For America, invoked California's "Three-Strikes" criminal sentencing law, and called on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to remove Feinstein from the Judiciary Committee.
Allan Hoffenblum, publisher of the California Target Book and a veteran observer of Golden State politics said that while progressives in the party have always criticized Feinstein, the explosive growth of blogs has made it increasingly difficult for her to ignore her critics.
In the past, Hoffenblum said, party activists unhappy with their delegation might only be able to vent their frustrations to each other once or twice a year at party meetings.
Today, those same activists are in constant communication through the blogs and email listservs that form the new media salons of the Democratic Party.
"They are the bullhorn and they are constantly riling up the base," Hoffenblum said, "And when someone goes off base like they believe Feinstein has, they get the word out."