Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell used an arcane rule to silence Senator Elizabeth Warren on the floor during a debate over the nomination of Senator Jeff Sessions for attorney general on Feb. 7.
Warren was silenced while reading a 1986 letter by Coretta Scott King, the late wife of deceased Martin Luther King Jr., in opposition to Sessions’ nomination for a federal judgeship in Alabama. King condemned Sessions’ civil rights record in the letter, which ultimately helped to deny Sessions from being confirmed to that position.
As Warren spoke, McConnell invoked Rule XIX, which prevents senators from attributing to their colleagues “any conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming a senator.” The Republican majority in the chamber voted to end Warren’s speech because they believed it impugned and insulted Sessions’ character.
McConnell and other senators criticized Warren’s behavior.
“She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted,” McConnell said.
Republicans’ effort to silence Warren ignited a fire under Democrats across the country, which was strengthened by McConnell’s decision not to use Rule XIX to prevent Senators Bernie Sanders and Tom Udall from finishing King’s letter and Warren’s remarks. By letting men speak while silencing a woman, the dispute became not just a partisan issue, but a seemingly sexist one as well.
Furthermore, preventing Warren from addressing Sessions’ past is a deliberate attempt to sweep the truth under the rug—a common occurrence in politics today. Evidently, King’s letter does call into question Sessions’ character, technically justifying the invocation of Rule XIX. However, if there is an aspect of Sessions’ actions that, even allegedly, could be “unbecoming” of an attorney general, they ought to be brought up.
Disregarding or trying to change an unfavorable story, as President Donald Trump’s White House has previously done, is one thing. Literally silencing a story from being told is far more severe. It is unbecoming of the Senate to allow such an action to happen.
Nevertheless, McConnell has effectively amplified Warren’s message, pouring fuel on the progressive fire that is spreading in response to Trump’s recent executive orders, such as the immigration ban.
The Senate ultimately voted 52-47 to confirm Sessions as Attorney General, but not without avoiding controversy.
This will not be the last battle on the Senate floor between McConnell and Warren, as each serve as an icon for their respective party. The polarized nature of the conflict begs the question of whether any part of our government—executive, legislative, or judicial—is capable of treating each other like adults, let alone having meaningful discussions or coming to an amicable agreement.