Senate Republicans voted on Tuesday night to silence Elizabeth Warren for reading out a letter from the widow of Martin Luther King during a debate over Senator Jeff Sessions’ nomination for attorney general, eliciting furious response from Democrats.
Speaking on the Senate floor, Warren quoted from 30-year-old correspondence from Coretta Scott King relating to Sessions’ failed judicial nomination in the 1980s. It was part of a barnstorming speech by the Massachusetts Senator against Sessions’ suitability for the post and attacking his record on civil rights.
Mitch McConnell, the Republican majority leader, objected that Warren had broken Senate rules that prohibit one member impugning the conduct of another. Senators then voted 49-43 to uphold a ruling in McConnell’s favour.
Warren hit back on Twitter. She posted to her 1.74 million followers: “Tonight @SenateMajLdr silenced Mrs King’s voice on the Sen floor - & millions who are afraid & appalled by what’s happening in our country.” Others on Twitter were posting with the hashtag #LetLiz Speak.
Late on Tuesday night, she read the letter on Facebook Live, writing, “During the debate on whether to make Jeff Sessions the next Attorney General, I tried to read a letter from Coretta Scott King on the floor of the Senate. The letter, from 30 years ago, urged the Senate to reject the nomination of Jeff Sessions to a federal judgeship. The Republicans took away my right to read this letter on the floor - so I’m right outside, reading it now.” In less than an hour and a half after it was posted, the video had already received more than 2m views.
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.”
Democrats also argued that Republicans were selectively enforcing the rule. They noted that Senator Ted Cruz of Texas was not formally found to have violated the rules when he accused McConnell of being a “liar” from the Senate floor.
Sessions, Senator for Alabama, is one of Donald Trump’s most contentious cabinet picks. Leading Democrats John Lewis and Cory Booker testified at his confirmation hearing, arguing that he would harm race relations in the criminal justice system.
Speaking on the Senate floor, Warren said: “He made derogatory and racist comments that should have no place in our justice system. To put Senator Sessions in charge of the Department of Justice is an insult to African Americans.”
Warren quoted a 1986 speech from the late Senate Ted Kennedy, who referred to Sessions as a “throwback to a shameful era” and a “disgrace” to the Department of Justice.
She also read from a letter written by King in March 1986, expressing her opposition to Sessions as a federal district court judge for the southern district of Alabama. “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,” King wrote.
“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.”
Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968. Coretta Scott King died 2006 at the age of 78.
Warren was first interrupted by the presiding officer, at that point Senator Steve Daines of Montana, who said she was violating Senate rules. She protested that she merely repeating the words of King and continued. But not long after, McConnell raised his objection.
“The Senator has impugned the motives and conduct of our colleague from Alabama,” he said. “I call the Senator to order under the provisions of Rule 19.”
Under “Rule 19,” Senators are not allowed to “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”.
Warren objected: “I am surprised that the words of Coretta Scott King are not suitable for debate in the United States Senate. I ask leave of the Senate to continue my remarks.”
McConnell objected to that request and the Republican-controlled Senate voted to shut down her appeals. She will not be allowed to speak from the floor until the end of Sessions’ nomination process; the vote is expected Wednesday evening.
McConnell later defended his actions. “Senator Warren was giving a lengthy speech,” he was quoted on the Politico website as saying. “She had appeared to violate the rule. She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”
Republican Senators Vote to Formally Silence Elizabeth Warren
WASHINGTON — Republican senators voted on Tuesday to formally silence a Democratic colleague for impugning a peer, Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, by condemning his nomination for attorney general while reading a letter from Coretta Scott King.
Senator Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts, had been holding forth on the Senate floor on the eve of Mr. Sessions’s expected confirmation vote, reciting a 1986 letter from Mrs. King that criticized Mr. Sessions’s record on civil rights.
Sensing a stirring beside her a short while later, Ms. Warren stopped herself and scanned the chamber.
Across the room, Senator Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, had stepped forward with an objection, setting off an extraordinary confrontation in the Capitol and silencing a colleague, procedurally, in the throes of a contentious debate over President Trump’s cabinet nominee.
“The senator has impugned the motives and conduct of our colleague from Alabama, as warned by the chair,” Mr. McConnell began, alluding to Mrs. King’s letter, which accused Mr. Sessions of using “the awesome power of his office to chill the pre-exercise of the vote by black citizens.”
Mr. McConnell called the Senate to order under what is known as Rule XIX, which prohibits debating senators from ascribing “to another senator or to other senators any conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming a senator.”
When Mr. McConnell concluded, Ms. Warren said she was “surprised that the words of Coretta Scott King are not suitable for debate in the United States Senate.” She asked to continue her remarks.
Mr. McConnell objected.
“Objection is heard,” said Senator Steve Daines, Republican of Montana, who was presiding in the chamber at the time. “The senator will take her seat.”
The debate appeared to center, in part, on whether the rule allowed exemptions for quoted remarks — Ms. Warren had been reading directly from the letter from Mrs. King, the widow of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — to demean a sitting senator.
In a party-line vote, 49 to 43, senators upheld Mr. Daines’s decision, forcing Ms. Warren into silence, at least on the Senate floor, until the showdown over Mr. Sessions’s nomination is complete. He is expected to be confirmed on Wednesday.
Immediately, Democrats took up Ms. Warren’s cause, urging on social media for Republicans to “#LetLizSpeak.” Ms. Warren said on Twitter that Mr. McConnell had “silenced Mrs. King’s voice” on the Senate floor, to say nothing of “millions who are afraid & appalled by what’s happening in our country.” Within hours of being shut down on the Senate floor, Ms. Warren read the letter from Mrs. King on Facebook, attracting more than two million views — an audience she would have been unlikely to match on C-Span, if she had been permitted to continue speaking in the chamber.
Democrats argued that Mr. McConnell was enforcing the rule selectively, citing examples of Republicans appearing to test the boundaries of Rule XIX. In one instance from 2015, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas accused Mr. McConnell of lying “over and over and over again.” In another, last year, Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas described the “cancerous leadership” of Senator Harry Reid, the former Democratic leader.
Republicans accused Ms. Warren of violating the rule repeatedly, saying she had been warned before Mr. McConnell’s objection. Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas, suggested that Ms. Warren had been rebuked over “a quotation from Senator Ted Kennedy that called the nominee a disgrace to the Justice Department.”
“Our colleagues want to try to make this all about Coretta Scott King, and it is not,” he said.
But when Senator Chuck Schumer, the Democratic leader, sought clarification, he was informed that while a warning was issued over the letter from Mr. Kennedy, the ruling itself hinged on Mrs. King’s letter. That judgment came from Senator Mike Rounds, Republican of South Dakota, who had taken over as the presiding officer.
In either event, Republicans suggested, the episode spoke to Democrats’ inability to accept the results of the 2016 election — and, more narrowly, to adhere to the rules of a body where decorum has often fallen away.
“She was warned,” Mr. McConnell said of Ms. Warren. “She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”
Democrats planned to hold the floor into the wee hours of Wednesday to protest Mr. Sessions’s nomination.
Senate GOP's effort to shut Warren up backfires
The Senate has silenced Elizabeth Warren.
And by doing so, majority Republicans just handed the liberal firebrand a megaphone -- further elevating President Donald Trump's fiercest and most prominent critic in the Senate and turning her into a Democratic hero.
"They can shut me up, but they can't change the truth," Warren later told CNN's Don Lemon.
The rebuke of Warren came as the Massachusetts Democrat read a letter that Coretta Scott King, the widow of Martin Luther King Jr., had written 30 years ago opposing the nomination of Jeff Sessions for a federal judgeship.
Sessions -- now an Alabama senator -- is Trump's nominee for attorney general. Warren opposes him, and cited King's letter to members of the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1986. "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," King wrote then.
Republicans cried foul -- charging that Warren violated Senate rules against impugning another senator. A party-line vote upheld that decision, turning what could have been an ordinary late-night partisan floor speech for C-SPAN devotees into a national story.
It means Warren is now forbidden from participating in the floor debate over Sessions' nomination ahead of a confirmation vote expected Wednesday.
"She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, said on the Senate floor.
The line was an instant classic -- the kind liberals envision being replayed ad nauseum in TV ads in a future presidential campaign.
And it couldn't have come at a better time for Warren, who is up for re-election in 2018. On Tuesday, she announced she hired an aide who is an expert on national security, a move that could help burnish her expertise in that area, as well as the publication of a new book, which will become available in April.
Liberals had been frustrated with Warren's vote in committee in favor of Ben Carson, Trump's nominee for secretary of Housing and Urban Development.
By Tuesday night, the hashtag #LetLizSpeak was trending on Twitter.
Warren took to Twitter herself to attack both Sessions and McConnell.
"I will not be silent about a nominee for AG who has made derogatory & racist comments that have no place in our justice system," she wrote.
In a follow-up tweet, she said: "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."
And then: "Tonight @SenateMajLdr silenced Mrs King's voice on the Sen floor - & millions who are afraid & appalled by what's happening in our country."
Warren went straight from the Senate floor to a call-in appearance on Rachel Maddow's MSNBC show, a favorite of progressives. "I've been red-carded on Sen. Sessions. I'm out of the game of the Senate floor," she told Maddow.
Meanwhile, the Democratic National Committee blasted out a supportive statement, with interim chairwoman Donna Brazile saying: "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 moment became a rallying cry for fellow Democrats. California Sen. Kamala Harris took to the Senate floor to call the vote to silence Warren "outrageous."
"I never ever saw a time when a member of the Senate asked to put into the record a letter -- especially by a civil rights icon -- and somebody objected," said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont.
The Senate descended into a series of complaints about declining decorum on both sides.
"We have to treat each other with respect or this place is going to devolve into a jungle," said seven-term Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch.
Then Democrats brought out examples of Republicans who had crossed similar lines and not been shut up the way Warren was forbidden from participating.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer's office highlighted Texas Sen. Ted Cruz's accusation that McConnell had told a "flat-out lie" about the future of the Export-Import Bank in 2015.
Warren sat on the Senate floor, though, silently. She had already had her moment.