On Tuesday, Sen. Elizabeth Warren took to the floor of the US Senate to voice her opposition to the nomination of Sen. Jeff Sessions for Attorney General. She presented two letters which had been read during the 1986 Senate hearing regarding the nomination of Sessions to serve as a federal district court judge, which resulted in the Senate Judiciary Committee rejecting Sessions’ nomination.
At first glance, all is as it should be. There is no question that both letters (one written by the late civil rights leader, Coretta Scott King, and the other written by the late senator, Edward M. Kennedy) contain information pertinent to Sessions’ nomination. Then why is it that Warren was subsequently banned from speaking further in the Senate debate concerning Sessions’ nomination?
According to Senate Republicans, Warren was in violation of Rule 19 of the United States Senate. Never heard of it? That’s because it is seldom, if ever, applied. It is a century-old rule which attempts to govern decorum in the Senate by prohibiting “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.”
In Warren’s case, the Senate charged Warren with ‘impugning Sessions’ character’ with the content of the King and Kennedy letters. While it is not made entirely clear what counts as a violation of Rule 19, it seems as though Senate Republicans took issue with Sessions being called a “disgrace” by Kennedy. The King letter then added insult to injury when King denounced Sessions for abuse of power, intimidating black voters and demonstrating racial bias while on the bench.
Apparently, these words were reason to silence Warren until after the vote on Sessions. Although it remains to be seen why the King and Kelly letters were enough to bring up Rule 19. When Sen. Tom Cotton called then-Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid “bitter, vulgar, [and] incoherent,” nothing happened. Or when Sen. Ted Cruz accused Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (the same Mitch McConnell who interrupted Warren’s speech and called for Rule 19 to be used to silence her) of lying to him in the summer of 2015, Rule 19 was not invoked.
What is it then, that makes Warren so special? The short answer is nothing. It was clear from the beginning that Sessions’ nomination, which was accepted by the Senate on Wednesday night, was going to be passed by the Republican-controlled Senate. So why did McConnell push to have her silenced?
I see it as yet another gross miscalculation on behalf of the Republican party. In silencing Warren, McConnell has made Warren’s voice louder than ever. Not only has King’s letter been shared countless of times across news media outlets and social media sites, but Warren has proved that silencing her in the Senate only gives her more power and legitimacy. McConnell may have even kick-started a potential bid for presidential candidacy on Warren’s behalf when he uttered three simple words that lit-up Twitter: “Nevertheless, she persisted.”
Here we have seen another example of the arrogance guiding Trump’s Administration, and the severe miscalculations taking place in the absence of competent and coherent leadership. McConnell’s move to silence Warren has not only empowered her voice, but the voice of the opposition in general. Despite a House and Senate majority, the Republican party remains to be on shaky ground, with no stability in sight.
Updated: This post has been updated following the Senate vote (8 February, 2017) comfirming Sen. Jeff Sessions’ nomination for Attorney General.