GOP Invokes Obscure Senate Rule to Silence Warren During Sessions Debate

WASHINGTON (Courthouse News) – 2/8/17 – Republicans invoked a little-used rule on Tuesday night to prevent Sen. Elizabeth Warren from speaking out against the Sen. Jeff Sessions, whom the Senate is prepared to confirm as attorney general on Wednesday.

Warren took to the floor late Tuesday to read a letter that Coretta Scott King, the civil rights activist and wife of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., wrote to the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1986 when Sessions was up for a federal judgeship.

“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. “This simply cannot be allowed to happen.”

Sen. Steve Daines, a Montana Republican who was presiding over the debate, cut Warren off while she was reading the letter to remind her of Rule 19 of the Senate, which prevents senators from using speeches to “impute to another senator or to other senators conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming a senator.”

Warren questioned why she was in violation for the rule simply for reading King’s letter or for quoting from a speech former Sen. Ted Kennedy gave on the Senate floor against Sessions’ nomination for the judgeship.

“I’m simply reading what she wrote about what the nomination of Jeff Sessions to be a federal court judge meant and what it would mean in history for her,” Warren said.

But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell objected to Warren’s speech, saying she broke the Senate’s rules.

“The senator has impugned the motives and conduct of our colleague from Alabama as warned by the chair,” McConnell said on the floor.

Warren appealed the ruling, arguing she was simply quoting something another person had written about Sessions.

“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,” Warren said.

She was found to be in violation of the rule by a 49-43 vote, and in a separate 50-43 vote her fellow senators determined she was not allowed to proceed.

The Republican-controlled Senate is expected to easily confirm Sessions’ nomination Wednesday.

Democrats have opposed Sessions largely on the grounds that he allegedly targeted black voters with voter-fraud investigations and made racially insensitive remarks while a prosecutor in Alabama. These charges sank his 1986 nomination for a federal judgeship.

Opponents of Sessions have also questioned whether he will be able to remain independent of President Donald Trump, with whom he appeared during the presidential campaign, often wearing a red Make America Great Again hat. Sessions was the first senator to come out in support of Trump as his colleagues kept the billionaire at arm’s length.

“In the real world, Senator Sessions isn’t going to stand up to the president’s campaign of bigotry,” Warren said during her floor speech. “How could he? In the real world Senator Sessions is one of the principle architects of that campaign.”