WASHINGTON — Senate Republicans invoked a chamber rule that bars talking ill of colleagues during debate to shut down Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s (D-Mass.) criticism of attorney general nominee Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.).
During an all-night debate on Sessions’ nomination, Warren slammed her fellow senator, who was the first senator to endorse the current president, for letting Donald Trump’s “campaign of bigotry” continue unfettered.
“He made derogatory and racist comments that should have no place in our justice system,” she said. “To put Sen. Sessions in charge of the Department of Justice is an insult to African-Americans.” She also read quotes disparaging Sessions from late Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.).
Senate Rule XIX states in part, “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.”
Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), who was presiding over the Senate, warned Warren she was violating that rule. Warren argued she wasn’t, and was allowed to carry on.
Warren read from a 1986 letter sent by Coretta Scott King to the Senate when Sessions was unsuccessfully nominated for a federal judgeship: “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. This simply cannot be allowed to happen.”
Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) came to the floor and declared Warren “has impugned the motives and the conduct of our colleague from Alabama as warned by the chair.”
The Senate then voted along party lines, 49-43, to keep Warren from talking anymore during the debate. She unsuccessfully tried to appeal.
“Sen. Warren was giving a lengthy speech. She had appeared to violate the rule. She was warned. She was given an explanation,” he said after the vote. “Nevertheless, she persisted.”
Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) said he wanted the record to be “abundantly clear” that Warren was in violation of the rule for quoting Kennedy calling Sessions “disgraceful.”
Cornyn added that Dems “want to try to make this all about Coretta Scott King and it is not.”
Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) then sought and received clarification from the presiding officer that Warren received a warning for the Kennedy quotes, but the rule violation was based on the King letter.
Sen. Jeff Merkeley (D-Ore.) later picked up the King letter and began reading parts of it on the Senate floor. Senate Dems spread the hashtag #LetLizSpeak on Twitter. Warren posted a video reading the King letter on her Facebook page.
Senate Dem aides were pointing out that Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) was never found in violation of the rule when he accused McConnell on the floor in 2015: “What we just saw today was an absolute demonstration that not only what he told every Republican senator but what he told the press over and over and over again was a simple lie.”
Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.), chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, issued a statement calling Republican senators’ “decision tonight to silence Coretta Scott King from the grave … disgusting and disgraceful.”
“Mrs. King’s characterization of then U.S. Attorney Senator Sessions was accurate in 1986 and it is accurate now,” Richmond said. “He is as much of a friend to the black community and civil rights as Bull Connor and the other Good Old Boys were during the Civil Rights Movement.”
Warren tweeted that McConnell silenced “Mrs King’s voice on the Sen floor – & millions who are afraid & appalled by what’s happening in our country.”
“I will not be silent while the Republicans rubber stamp an AG who will never stand up to the @POTUS when he breaks the law,” she tweeted.