Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) was silenced on the Senate floor on Feb. 7 while reading a letter that was written by Coretta Scott King, the widow of Martin Luther King Jr., during a debate on the nomination of Sen. Jeff Sessions for attorney general. In the 1986
In the 1986 letter, King wrote about how Sessions had “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.”
It is worth noting that Sessions was denied that federal judgeship in the 1980s because of racism accusations. It’s rare for a judgeship to be voted down like that.
As noted by NPR’s Nina Totenberg, it was only the second time in almost 50 years that the Senate Judiciary Committee vetoed a federal district court nomination.
Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) invoked Senate Rule 19 to stop Sen. Warren, which states that senators are not allowed to directly or indirectly impute to another senator any conduct unbecoming a senator. Any senator may invoke the rule, which then goes to the senators where it was held up in a party-line Republican vote.
This was very controversial for a plethora of issues starting first and foremost with its implementation in this scenario in contrast to how it has been used in the past. Most Senate Democrats were outraged that the words of someone as dignified as King’s, not to mention written over 30 years ago, were ruled to unjustly impugn Sen. Sessions. They felt it was a large stretch to say that this warranted that action, especially a rule that was first put into record after a literal fistfight between senators in 1902.
The rule is supposed to be about the promotion of fair debate without slander, which as many senators would say is a shaky claim to make about Warren’s reading of the letter. Even when Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) came out to say that this was another example that the Senate couldn’t hold a civil debate, according to Alyx D. Mark, assistant professor of political science at NCC, because it was motivated by what he viewed as obstructionism by the other party, there are many who viewed it as simply a politically savvy move and not really a call for civility.
Even when Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) came out to say that this was another example that the Senate couldn’t hold a civil debate, according to Alyx D. Mark, assistant professor of political science at NCC, because it was motivated by what he viewed as obstructionism by the other party, there are many who viewed it as simply a politically savvy move and not really a call for civility.
Many point to a 2015 debate when fellow Republican Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said that McConnell had lied about the existence of a transportation bill and “like Saint Peter, he repeated it three times,” Cruz said. McConnell himself, nor any other senators chose to implement the rule then, despite disparaging it in the following days. The Cruz tirade looks like a more direct attack, but it was still not invoked, most likely because it was against a fellow Republican senator.
This is why the invoking of the rule is so controversial and why it is easy to see this another example of petty politics between the left and the right and the lack of adult compromise.
As professor Mark put it, “if the rule is used purely to sanction senators from the other party — it only ensures that future partisan conflict will be intensified.”