Late Tuesday night, the US Senate voted to bar Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren from speaking on the floor during its confirmation debate over attorney general nominee Jeff Sessions.
Her offense: quoting a letter Coretta Scott King wrote in 1986 opposing Sessions’s nomination for a federal judgeship.
When Warren first spoke against Sessions Tuesday night, Sen. Steve Daines, a Republican from Montana, warned her that she was breaking the rules. When she continued anyway, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell retaliated by finding her in violation of Senate Rule 19 — which prevents any senator from using “any form of words [to] impute to another Senator … any conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming a Senator.”
Under Rule 19, Daines and McConnell can alone cut off Warren’s speech. They then called in the rest of the Senate, which affirmed their decision in a party-line 49-to-43 vote.
After the Senate cut her off, Democrats appealed the decision. The appeal then went down to defeat in a 43-50 vote, effectively silencing Warren for the duration of the debate about Sessions.
Senate Democrats are furious about McConnell’s decision
Republicans have defended Sessions throughout the confirmation process, and said they were outraged by Warren’s attacks on the attorney general.
“The senator has impugned the motives and conduct of our colleague from Alabama,” McConnell said on the floor justifying the attack.
Democrats reacted by furiously pointing out that they were mounting their opposition to Sessions as attorney general, so of course they were going to criticize a fellow senator. As Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy said on Twitter:
That's the key point. Rules against criticizing other Senators cannot apply when you are DEBATING THE NOMINATION OF A SENATOR! https://t.co/mLQqP7z14d— Chris Murphy (@ChrisMurphyCT) February 8, 2017
It seems hard to dispute that Warren wasn’t technically in violation of the Senate rules. But as Democrats were also quick to point out, Senate Republicans appear to have violated the rule on multiple occasions, one of which occurred less than a week ago — with no apparent consequences.
On February 1, Sen. David Perdue (R-GA) took to the Senate floor to directly attack Minority Leader Chuck Schumer after Schumer cried at a press conference about Trump’s executive order. “The minority leader's tear-jerking performance over the past weekend belongs at the Screen Actors Guild awards, not in a serious discussion of what it takes to keep America safe,” said Perdue in a speech on the floor.
Additionally, Republican Sen. Tom Cotton used the Senate floor to attack the “sad, sorry legacy” of former Minority Leader Harry Reid on May 25, 2016. On July 24, 2015, Sen. Ted Cruz accused McConnell of a “flat-out lie.”
And if Senate Republicans were trying to prevent word of Warren’s attack from getting out, the move backfired badly. Since Warren was cut off, her speech has rallied Senate Democrats and ricocheted through social media and in the press — almost certainly spreading further than a little-watched floor speech on C-SPAN would have otherwise.
I will not be silent about a nominee for AG who has made derogatory & racist comments that have no place in our justice system.— Elizabeth Warren (@SenWarren) February 8, 2017
In case you were wondering what Coretta Scott King said about Sessions, the whole letter is here.