Ok. What. Mitch McConnell and his minions are really pushing their luck here. The Senate Republicans literally took a vote to make a woman stop talking. All right, that’s an inflammatory statement. It’s true, but it’s also inflammatory. This is what happened.
Yesterday, the Senate was digging into a debate over Senator Jeff Sessions’ nomination for Attorney General. In this vein, Elizabeth Warren got up to say her piece – her disapproving piece – armed with a letter from Coretta Scott King, written 30 years ago in response to Sessions’ failed judicial nomination in the 1980s. Warren used the letter in her speech against Sessions’ suitability for the post and as grounds for attacking his civil rights record (which is, shall we say, bad). In the letter, King wrote: “Anyone who has used the power of his office as United States Attorney to intimidate and chill the free exercise of the ballot by citizens should not be elevated to our courts. Mr. Sessions has used the awesome powers of his office in shabby attempt to intimidate and frighten elderly black voters. For this reprehensible conduct, he should not be rewarded with a federal judgeship.”
McConnell lost it and claimed that Warren broke a Senate rule that prohibits one member from impugning the conduct of another. Then he forced a vote which resulted in a 49-43 decision to uphold McConnell’s speech chilling position. As Donna Brazile, chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, said: “It’s a sad day in America when the words of Martin Luther King Jr’s widow are not allowed on the floor of the United States Senate. Let Elizabeth Warren speak. The American people deserve to hear how Jeff Sessions is an extremist who will be a rubber stamp for this out-of-control Trump presidency.” McConnell, for his part gave a rather self-important statement to Politico, “Senator Warren was giving a lengthy speech,” he was quoted on Politico as saying. “She had appeared to violate the rule. She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”
And, as per usual, there appears to have been some selective rule enforcement happening – nothing happened to Ted Cruz when he accused McConnell of being a “liar” while on the Senate floor. Senator Chris Murphy also pointed out that when the subject of the debate is a Senator’s suitability for a job, enforcing a rule against insult is a little ridiculous.
Soooo…what was the rule? Rule 19(2). It states, “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.” But Rule 19 is rules for debate in the Senate. Presumably it refers to making unwarranted ad hominem attacks on an opposing debater. Not to submitting information for consideration. There is a rather large different between Senator Warren saying “Jeff Sessions is a raging racist asshole” and reading an excerpt from a letter written by Coretta Scott King in response to his failed judicial nomination in the 1980s. But then again, Slate put it this way: “Rule used to silence Warren was created to protect delicate feelings of Senate’s foremost lynching advocate.”
Seriously. Rule 19 was enacted in 1902 after a fist fight on the Senate floor between Senators Ben Tillman and John McLaurin after McLaurin called Tillman a “malicious liar.” A third party to the fight, Senator George Hoar was excited to have an excuse to propose a rule he’d been sitting on for a while. But Tillman was kind of a “malicious liar.” And worse. He’s on record saying things like, “Lynch law is all we have left” and “[We] agreed on the policy of terrorizing the Negroes at the first opportunity by letting them provoke trouble and then having the whites demonstrate their superiority by killing as many of them as was justifiable” (in that speech, Tillman also boasted that he’d executed seven black men in 1876 with his pistol). Soooo maybe it’s a little ironic that McConnell pulled it out of the “use-‘em-when-it-behooves-us” grab bag of Senate rules.
It’s also worth noting that the rule isn’t often invoked – in 1979 Senator Lowell Weicker called Senator John Heinz “an idiot” and “devious.” Senator Heinz invoked the rule and the two later agreed upon a truce. (And again, keep in mind that Senator Cruz straight-up called McConnell a liar in a 2015 speech in the Senate and no one said a peep.)
And here’s the worst bit (worst for last): Senator Warren is no no longer permitted to speak at all during the ongoing floor debate regarding Sessions’ nomination. That’s right. She’s permanently silenced. If that isn’t devious, I don’t know what is.