Senate Republicans passed a party-line rebuke Tuesday night of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) for a speech opposing attorney general nominee Jeff Sessions, striking down her words for impugning the Alabama senatorâs character.
In an extraordinarily rare move, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) interrupted Warrenâs speech, in a near-empty chamber as debate on Sessionsâs nomination heads toward a Wednesday evening vote, and said that she had breached Senate rules by reading past statements against Sessions from figures such as the late senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and the late Coretta Scott King.
âThe senator has impugned the motives and conduct of our colleague from Alabama,â McConnell said, then setting up a series of roll-call votes on Warrenâs conduct.
It was the latest clash in the increasingly hostile debate over confirming President Trumpâs Cabinet, during which Democrats have accused Republicans of trying to force through nominees without proper vetting. Democrats, unable to stop the confirmations that require simple majorities, have countered by using extreme delay tactics that have dragged out the process longer than any in history for a new presidentâs Cabinet.
The Democratic moves, including boycotting committee room votes on nominees last week and a round-the-clock debate Monday night before Tuesdayâs confirmation of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, reached a boiling point during the debate over Sessions â which Democrats are vowing to continue overnight.
In setting up the votes to rebuke Warren, McConnell specifically cited portions of a letter that King, the widow of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., wrote to the Senate Judiciary Committee in opposition to Sessionsâs 1986 nomination to be a federal judge.
âMr. Sessions has used the awesome power of his office to chill the free exercise of the vote by black citizens,â King wrote, referencing controversial prosecutions at the time that Sessions servedÂ as the U.S. attorney for Alabama. Earlier, Warren read from the 1986 statement of Kennedy, a senior member of the Judiciary Committee who led the opposition then against Sessions, including the Massachusetts Democratâs concluding line: âHe is, I believe, a disgrace to the Justice Department and he should withdraw his nomination and resign his position.â
The Senate voted, 49 to 43, strictly on party lines, to uphold the ruling that Warren violated rules of debate. Pursuant to those rules, Warren is now forbidden from speaking during the remainder of the debate on the nomination of Sessions.
âI am surprised that the words of Coretta Scott King are not suitable for debate in the United States Senate,â Warren said after McConnellâs motion.
Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), a freshman who was presiding over the Senate at the time, issued a warning to Warren at that point, singling out Kennedyâs âdisgraceâ comment, and 25 minutes later McConnell came to the floor and set in motion the battle, citing the comments in the King letter as crossing the line.
Warrenâs speech ended with a simple admonition from Daines: âThe senator will take her seat.â
Later, McConnell defended his decision.
âSen. Warren was giving a lengthy speech. She had appeared to violate the rule. She was warned. She was given an explanation,â he said. âNevertheless, she persisted.â
Other Democrats later came to her defense and tried to have Kingâs letter placed into the Senate record. But Republican senators quickly objected. They did so again when Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), the chamberâs only African American woman, asked that Warren be allowed to resume participation in the debate.
Warren, a liberal firebrand with a devoted national following whom some activists want to run for president in 2020, quickly took to social media and the airwaves to attack McConnell and Republicans for shutting down her speech.
I will not be silent about a nominee for AG who has made derogatory & racist comments that have no place in our justice system.
â Elizabeth Warren (@SenWarren) February 8, 2017
In a brief telephone interview with MSNBCâs âThe Rachel Maddow Show,â a program watched loyally by many Warren devotees, she explained that âIâve been red- carded on Sen. Sessions, Iâm out of the game of the Senate floor. I donât get to speak at all.â
Public reaction to the Senate floor drama intensified quickly online. RedBubble.com, an online clothing website for independent designers, began selling a âShe Persistedâ T-shirt or sweatshirt â seizing on McConnellâs admonition of Warren. Democrats began using #LetLizSpeak on Twitter and posted copies of Kingâs letter on Facebook to draw more attention to Warrenâs speech.
At least one other Democrat, Sen. Christopher Murphy (Conn.), hinted that he might try to pick up where Warren left off at some point overnight, saying on Twitter, âGo ahead and rule me out of order.â
This is unreal. Senate Republicans have ruled that any Democrat that criticizes Sessionsâ record will be stripped of the right to speak. https://t.co/At5fqUkVWF
â Chris Murphy (@ChrisMurphyCT) February 8, 2017