In a rare move, Senate Republicans dusted off an old rule to silence Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) during her floor speech opposing Jeff Sessions’ nomination to Attorney General.
Warren was in the middle of reading from a 1986 letter by Coretta Scott King, Martin Luther King Jr’s widow, opposing Sessions consideration for a federal judgeship when Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) rose and interrupted her, invoking Rule XIX, which states:
“No Senator in debate shall, 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.”
Warren was reading a portion of King’s letter that mentioned his time as a prosecutor in Alabama in the 1980s, which said, “Mr. Sessions has used the awesome power of his office to chill the free exercise of the vote by black citizens,” when McConnell ruled her in violation of Rule XIX and used the procedural move to silence her. Warren and Democrats appealed the move and asked for a vote but Republicans prevailed in a 50-43 vote and Warren was barred from speaking on the Senate floor for the next 30 hours.
Before yielding the floor Warren added “I am surprised that the words of Coretta Scott King are not suitable for debate in the United States Senate.” She later hit back by reading the letter on Facebook Live outside of the Senate chamber and on her Twitter account blasting McConnell and Senate Republicans.
In defense of the move, McConnell later stated “Senator Warren was giving a lengthy speech. She had appeared to violate the rule. She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”
McConnell and his Republican colleagues claimed that Warren’s reading of that portion of the letter had “impugned the motives and conduct” of Sessions. It wasn’t lost on many of her Democratic colleagues and public that Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) read the same letter a few hours later without any interruption. Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) even took to the floor, arguing that he was “gravely disappointed” and found it “disturbing” that Warren was silenced for executing her constitutionally protected right to speak.
Within a matter of hours #ShePersisted and #LetLizSpeak became a rallying cry across social media.
McConnell may have bitten off more than he can chew. It was a demeaning procedural move by Senate Republicans that instead of halting the Democratic opposition to Sessions just brought it further to forefront of the public and media. It clearly sent a message to the millions of voters protesting Sessions’ nomination that their opinions, and votes, don’t matter.
Nor was it the first time in the past year that a powerful public female figure has been silenced by a Republican man simply because he disagrees with what she is saying. From the recent firing of Acting Attorney General Sally Yates to shushing and belittling female reporters to consistent interruptions during debates, McConnell’s snub of Warren’s right to speak is just another textbook case in a long list of recent examples of a GOP Party clinging an out-of-date viewpoint that women are meant to be silent and appeasing while men are meant to shape and lead.
Obviously they chose to ignore the memo following the historic Women’s March on January 21, 2017 that sent a clear message that “no, we will not go quietly.” Progressives heard you McConnell. Thank you for our new rallying cry.