California Sen. Feinstein shuns spotlight in re-election bid

WASHINGTON — Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein sat down at her Capitol Hill home one recent Friday afternoon for a little secret reading.

Standing over her shoulder was a Senate intelligence committee aide, a University of Virginia-trained lawyer with the necessary clearances. Together, they perused part of a massive, 4,000-page review of how the United States has interrogated and detained alleged terrorists.

"It's a very big study. It is huge," Feinstein said. "Over 4 million cables and pieces of paper have been reviewed, and every high-value detainee looked at."

But the 2 1/2-year-old study, with its 20,000 footnotes and its ultra-sensitive subject matter, will probably never become public. Instead, Feinstein and other Democratic members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence will likely issue some limited public findings and recommendations by fall.

Running for re-election this year, the 78-year-old Feinstein hasn't yet broken a sweat against unknown and underfunded Republican opponents. If anything, she has more freedom to pursue her work on the intelligence committee, where the spotlight is usually turned off and party labels are often put aside.

Like the committee she chairs, Feinstein seems to work best when there's a problem to be solved and speeches won't suffice. In her two decades in the Senate, she has passed some high-profile legislation, including an assault weapons ban and California desert protection.

She delights in making deals, gathering colleagues in a room to hash things out.

"She does want to get things done," said prominent Fresno County rancher John Harris, a Republican who last year held a campaign fundraiser for Feinstein at his Coalinga ranch. "It's a tough, partisan world she works in, but she has been able to bring together divergent views to make things happen."

Starting in 2005, for instance, Feinstein quietly urged environmentalists and farmers to negotiate a San Joaquin River restoration settlement. Once lawsuit negotiations concluded in September 2006, Feinstein spent another 2 1/2 years maneuvering the accompanying legislation through Congress.

The power-broker plays don't always work, and some find them vexing. A Feinstein-led effort to solve a San Joaquin Valley irrigation drainage problem, for instance, could not bridge wide differences. Later, environmentalists and House Democrats protested loudly when they thought Feinstein was trying to steer too much water to farms.

On economic and social issues, Feinstein's public voting record is essentially indistinguishable from that of her colleague, Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer, according to tallies from the nonpartisan National Journal. On foreign affairs, Feinstein votes somewhat more conservatively than Boxer.

But though the two senators' voting often overlaps, Feinstein has earned the greater reputation for pragmatism.

"If you have a business in California and you need to get something moved through Congress, you go to Dianne Feinstein," said Bill Whalen, a Republican research fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution. "Feinstein can go to Republicans and work with them; she is far more centrist than most Democrats in that chamber."

Behind the scenes

Still, as the public's view of Congress plummets to all-time lows, Feinstein has not been immune. Her perennially high approval ratings slipped below 50 percent in 2008 and registered at 41 percent in September.

Public votes and prominent deals can say only so much. Like an iceberg, the work of the intelligence committee that Feinstein has chaired since January 2009 remains largely subsurface.

If she'll be traveling to Pakistan and Afghanistan, she'll keep the dates veiled.

The specially sealed second-floor committee room, with its beige interior and ban on BlackBerrys and iPhones, is unmarked from the outside.

The juiciest bits of the roughly $55 billion intelligence authorization bill her committee writes stay locked up forever.

Twice a week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, Feinstein convenes the 15-member Senate intelligence panel. Of the committee's past 50 hearings, only six have been public.

Sometimes, the committee members will discreetly go for what Feinstein called a "roundtable" discussion at Central Intelligence Agency headquarters in Northern Virginia, or at one of the 16 other federal agencies that together make up what's called the "intelligence community."

"I wouldn't call it a fun job," Feinstein said, when prompted. "Do I find it challenging? Yes."

Feinstein is the first Californian to chair a congressional intelligence committee since the House and Senate panels were established in the mid-1970s, and the state's aerospace and electronics firms certainly have a big stake in intelligence-gathering. But unlike, say, an energy and water appropriations panel also chaired by Feinstein, the intelligence committee provides few election-year bragging rights about bringing home the bacon.

"It's never even been discussed," Feinstein said, when queried about California-based intelligence contracts. "No one has really asked me for anything, that I can think of."

The job does provide a certain cachet and a presumption of expertise, which can help politically. Feinstein meets with foreign officials and makes regular television appearances in her intelligence committee role; recently, for instance, she told CNN she expects Israel "will attack Iran."

By some measures, moreover, Feinstein has helped right a foundering ship.

Between January 2005 and September 2010, Congress failed to enact the annual intelligence authorization bills that are the primary responsibility of the intelligence panels. Partisanship ruled.

One Republican committee chairman, Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, was said by former CIA Inspector General L. Britt Snider to be more interested in "high-profile 'show trials' " than in meaningful oversight. The commission that studied the 9/11 terrorist attacks blasted the intelligence committees as "dysfunctional."

Tempers have since cooled. While Feinstein has chaired the Senate committee and Michigan Republican Mike Rogers, a former FBI special agent, has chaired the House intelligence panel, Congress has completed three intelligence authorization bills. The most recent won approval in December on a 392-15 margin in the House, and by voice vote in the Senate.

"It is a meaningful accomplishment, and that alone means the committees are working better together," Snider, who also served as the Senate committee's general counsel, said in an interview.

Across the aisle

In the Senate, Feinstein collaborates closely with the committee's senior Republican, Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, whom Senate Democrats once denounced for the slashing 2002 campaign he ran against a badly wounded Vietnam veteran.

"Sometimes Saxby has a better idea, sometimes I have a better idea, but basically we have a good, positive working relationship," Feinstein said.

Chambliss, in turn, has praised Feinstein's work, as have other Republicans who in other arenas may speak harshly of the California Democrat.

"Intelligence (oversight) is working well, and this is one area where you want Congress to work well," said Rep. Devin Nunes, D-Visalia, a member of the House intelligence panel.

Lawmakers, though, can still split; sometimes, vehemently.

Last year, for instance, the Senate committee approved an unusual punitive provision that enables intelligence agency officials to strip pension benefits from any former employee they "determine" leaked classified information. Skeptics worry about legitimate whistle-blowers being punished even if they've never been convicted.

But the intelligence community's anti-leak measure will not play even the tiniest role in Feinstein's reelection bid. It's far too esoteric.

Instead, the campaign will almost certainly keep a traditional course. Feinstein will focus on her clout and legislative achievements. Outgunned Republicans will play to the public's overall disenchantment with Congress.

And all the while, behind closed Senate doors, some confidential work will proceed. Of this, only a few highlights may surface, as when the secret detainee report is finished this year, far later than originally expected.

"Sometimes," Feinstein allowed, "it's difficult to get the information."