Senate Republicans silenced Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) on the Senate floor late Tuesday night as she read a 1986 letter from Coretta Scott King criticizing the record of attorney general nominee Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL).
But just hours later, Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley returned to the Senate floor to pick up where Warren had left off, reading portions of the same letter.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had found Warren in violation of the Senate’s Rule 19, which prevents senators from using “any form of words [to] impute to another Senator … any conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming a Senator,” for attempting to read the letter criticizing Sessions. The full Senate body then voted on party lines, 49-43, to prevent Warren from speaking further on the Sessions confirmation debate.
Merkley, noting he’d consulted with the Senate parliamentarian, announced he would read the same letter — but “in a way that’s appropriate under our rules.” It was a gambit designed to call further attention to the letter Republicans didn’t want broadcast, which had already taken off on social media and in the press.
Merkley’s speech omitted portions of the letter that Warren had read, including the line that Sessions had used his office as a prosecutor “to chill the free exercise of the vote by black citizens.”
But Merkley concluded his speech with the following quote, which at the very least appears to violate the spirit of Rule 19:
I do not believe Jefferson Sessions possesses the requisite judgment, competence and sensitivity to the rights guaranteed by the federal civil rights laws to qualify for appointment to the federal district court.
Republicans did not censure Merkley for reading that portion of the letter, perhaps because it came at the end of his speech and he had already finished. (By contrast, Warren was cut off in the middle of her talk about Sessions.)
Either way, Merkley’s speech represented how McConnell’s decision to cut off Warren may have backfired. Until well past 2 am, Senate Democrats held the floor talking about their outrage about the decision. Democratic Sens. Cory Booker (NJ), Pat Leahy (VT), and Chris Murphy (CT) all took turns criticizing McConnell for doing so.
Here’s a portion of a speech from Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI):
After she was excluded from the Senate debate, Warren recorded a video on Facebook Live outside the Capitol expressing her frustration. Her video got more than 3 million views. The C-SPAN feed of the Senate floor was being watched by a few hundred people late Tuesday night.