The Senate is currently debating the confirmation of Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III to be Donald Trump’s Attorney General. The nomination has been contentious from the start given Sessions’ racially charged past. Among his harshest and most effective critics is Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.
Tuesday night Warren took to the senate floor to deliver remarks on the Sessions nomination. Included in her speech were quotes from the 1986 confirmation hearing when Sessions was up for a federal judgeship. He was considered too racist then to be confirmed. Notable opponents spoke out against him at the time, including Sen. Ted Kennedy and Coretta Scott King, widow of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
When Warren got to the part of her speech that quoted Mrs. King, she was interrupted by the Chair. He warned her that she was close to violating the Senate’s Rule 19. This is a rule intended to maintain the collegiality of the chamber. It says that: “No Senator in debate shall, directly or indirectly, by any form of words impute to another Senator or to other Senators any conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming a Senator.”
While the rule has its merits, it complicates the process of confirmation if the nominee happens to be a senator. How is it possible to express criticism without potentially violating the rule? Merely asserting that a nominee is unfit could be interpreted as crossing the line. In fact, that’s precisely what happened to Warren.
After being warned by the Chair, Warren sought clarification saying that she didn’t understand. “I’m reading a letter,” she said, “from Coretta Scott King to the Judiciary Committee from 1986 that was submitted into the record.” Warren noted that there was no objection to the original statement. But the Chair repeated his ruling and affirmed that she had “been warned.”
Warren was then permitted to continue. But while quoting the letter by Mrs. King, Republican leader Mitch McConnell interrupted to formally charge her with the violation:
“The Senator has impugned the motives and conduct of our colleague from Alabama, as warned by the Chair. Senator Warren said ‘Senator Sessions has used the awesome power of his office to chill the free exercise of the vote by black citizens.’ I call the Senator to order under the provisions of Rule 19.”
Actually, it was Mrs. King who said that. And she was referring to Sessions when he was the Attorney General of Alabama, not a senator. So the charge that Warren had violate Rule 19 was just a flimsy excuse to shut her up. There was no reasonable interpretation of the rule that would justify invoking it. Nevertheless, since Republicans have the majority, their interpretations, no matter how perverse, are final.
Warren was left to object and vainly appeal the ruling of the chair. “I am surprised,” she lamented, “that the words of Coretta Scott King are not suitable for debate in the United States Senate.” She’s not the only one that will be surprised.
The optics of Republicans effectively gagging Warren for quoting Mrs. King are cringe worthy. We are witnessing a party that has been trying to shed its reputation for inbred prejudice. So they censor the words of the widow of an iconic civil rights leader? Now Warren is prohibited from speaking on the senate floor for the duration of the Sessions debate. And all in an effort to confirm an Attorney General whose resume is rife with bigotry. That seems like a strange way to rehabilitate the Party’s racist image. And Warren, for her part, isn’t going away quietly:
I will not be silent about a nominee for AG who has made derogatory & racist comments that have no place in our justice system.
— Elizabeth Warren (@SenWarren) February 8, 2017
[UPDATE] In a show of support, two Democratic senators have read the same letter by Mrs. King. Neither has been charged with breaching senate rules. They are both white males (Merkely and Udall). Warren is still prohibited from speaking.
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