No one expected last night’s senate discussion around the confirmation vote of Senator Jeff Sessions to the role of Attorney General to make headlines.
But last night, well respected democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren – a political presence revered to make an impending presidential run – had been holding the Senate floor. The topic was Jeff Sessions – the Trump nominee for Attorney General – whose confirmation vote was expected to take place today. Warren was reading a letter from the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s wife Coretta Scott King, when she heard a stir around her.
The letter was written 30 years ago and detailed King’s rebuke of Sessions nomination for a federal judgeship. Warren, reading from the letter stated, “Mr. Sessions has used the awesome power of his office to chill the free exercise of the vote by Black citizens in the district he now seeks to serve as a federal judge.”
A few minutes later, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell evoked Rule 19, which prohibits senators from impugning each other.
“I’m simply reading what she wrote about what the nomination of Sessions to be a federal court judge meant and what it would mean in history for her,” Warren calmly replied.
The Senate moved 49-43 and down party lines to reject Warren’s push to overturn the ruling that said she had violated the rules during her speech. The decision effectively put Warren on shutdown – she was not allowed to continue her speech and effectively was/is shut out from speaking during the rest of the Sessions hearing and confirmation today.
In his explanation as to the reason Warren was silenced, McConnell explained, “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.” The statement quickly took fire on social media becoming the latest feminist rallying cry through the hashtag #ShePersisted.
What exactly is Rule 19? Rule 19 ensures that senators do not directly or indirectly impute other Senators any conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming of a Senator. You might think of it as the Senate’s variation of the golden rule, except that it’s not. Rule 19 is an arcane and seldom invoked provision. In fact, it appears as if there has only been one documented instance when it was used – in 1979 when Senator Weicker of Connecticut called Senator Heinz of Pennsylvanian an idiot and devious.
Of course, there are plenty of examples where the Rule 19 should legitimately have been used. Just last year, Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton attacked democratic leader and fellow Senator Harry Reid of “cancerous leadership.” In 2015, republican Senator Ted Cruz – a presidential primary nominee – accused Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of lying “over and over and over again.” Interestingly, rule 19 was not invoked by McConnell at this time.
The hypocrisy of Rule 19 of course, is that Republicans have enforced this rule selectively, with Senator Warren being that exception. Most upsetting is that there is a fundamental difference between the direct attacks made by Senator Cruz and McConnell and Warren’s reading of King’s letter, the difference of which became blurred yesterday.
Lesson here? When you’re not part of the majority party in the Senate, you’ll be silenced and told you’re breaking the rules. Warren later said, “They can shut me up, but they can’t change the truth.”
However, Warren’s move draw large criticism of the Senate –both in the press and on social media. Last night the hashtag #LetLizSpeak erupted on twitter. Additionally,Warren took to Facebook to read the whole Coretta Scott King letter, gathering over two million views.
— Kamala Harris (@KamalaHarris) February 8, 2017
“I am surprised,” Warren said, “that the words of Coretta Scott King are not suitable for debate in the United States Senate.”