Senate Republicans on Tuesday, Feb. 7, voted to formally silence Sen. Elizabeth Warren after she read from a 31-year-old letter written by Coretta Scott King denouncing the 1986 federal judgeship nomination of Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, who’s now in the running to become the next U.S. Attorney General.
Tuesday night’s debate on the confirmation of Sen. Sessions, which carried overnight into the wee hours of Wednesday morning, came to a brief halt when majority leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) objected to Sen. Warren’s critical speech, NBC News reported.
Standing at the podium on the Senate floor, the Massachusetts Democrat quoted from Mrs. King’s strongly worded letter opposing Session’s judgeship nomination, which accused the former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Alabama of using “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.”
“Anyone who has used the power of his office as United States Attorney to intimidate … the free exercise of the ballot by citizens should not be elevated to our courts,” King wrote in her nine-page letter, which was recently unearthed after decades. Buzzfeed News reported that the letter was never entered into the Congressional record by former Judiciary Committee Chairman Strom Thurmond in the first place.
Sessions’ federal judgeship ultimately was derailed by numerous allegations that he had made racially offensive comments in the past. The accusations, which included him referring to an African-American prosecutor as “boy” and joking that he had no issue with the Ku Klux Klan until he realized they smoked weed, have all come back to haunt the Alabama senator since his confirmation process began.
Senate Republicans, however, were successful in shutting Warren up as she attempted to dig up old allegations of Sessions’ racism in an effort to tank his nomination. For her behavior, the Senate voted 49-43 to sanctioh the Massachusetts lawmaker, prohibiting her from speaking during what was left of the debate on Sessions.
“I literally can’t be recognized on the floor of the Senate,” Warren told CNN’s Don Lemon. “I have become a nonperson during the discussion of Jeff Sessions.”
“They can shut me up, but they can’t change the truth,” she added.
McConnell and other Republicans claimed that Warren had violated Senate Rule No. 19, a rarely evoked regulation that prohibits senators from “directly or indirectly, by any form of words,” criticizing one another. Don Stewart, a spokesman for majority leader McConnell, said the senator had been warned multiple times about her biting rhetoric against Sessions.
“And after additional warning today, she was found in violation of the rule,” Stewart said. “She appealed the ruling and lost.”
On the Senate floor, McConnell denounced Warren himself, saying she had “impugned the motives and conduct of our colleague from Alabama.”
“She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted,” he added.
Fellow Democrats quickly came to Warren’s defense, as the hashtag #LetLizSpeak flooded social media soon afterward.
— Kamala Harris (@KamalaHarris) February 8, 2017
— Edwina Graham (@Wynner2001) February 8, 2017
— AmnestyInternational (@amnestyusa) February 8, 2017
CNN reported that the Dems also pointed out the hypocrisy of Republicans evoking the No. 19 rule, highlighting examples of Republicans who’d also spoken out against fellow senators but weren’t completely barred from participating in debates like Warren was. For instance, Democratic leader Chuck Schumer’s office pointed to Sen. Ted Cruz’s assertion that fellow Republican McConnell had told a “flat-out lie” concerning the future of the Export-Import Bank back in 2015.
After Warren was barred from speaking at the debate, she took to Facebook Live to continue reading Mrs. King’s letter. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-California) also tweeted excerpts of the letter after the Massachusetts senator was reprimanded.
… to our courts. Mr. Sessions has used the awesome power of his office in a shabby attempt to intimidate and frighten elderly black voters …
— Kamala Harris (@KamalaHarris) February 8, 2017
Congressman Cedric Redmond, a Democrat from Louisiana, blasted the Senate ruling, calling it an effort to “silence Coretta Scott King from the grave.”
“Mrs. King’s characterization of then U.S. Attorney Senator Sessions was accurate in 1986 and it is accurate now,” Redmond said in a statement. “He is as much of a friend to the Black community and civil rights as Bull Connor and the other Good Old Boys were during the Civil Rights Movement.”
Warren echoed the Louisiana congressman’s sentiments, charging that Sen. McConnell had really silenced the words of Mrs. King, not hers.
“I hope everyone reads the letter,” Warren said. “It is eloquent and it reminds us of a time in history that we would like to think is far behind us but reminds us that it is not.