Massachusetts Democrat Sen. Elizabeth Warren received a stunning monition Tuesday evening from her fellow senators after she quoted from a letter that accused Attorney General-designate Sen. Jeff Sessions (R.-Ala.) of racism during his tenure as a federal prosecutor.
Warren may have thought she could skirt the rules if she quoted someone else speaking about Sessions, but instead she was forced to end her remarks because of her breach of Senate protocol.
First, she quoted Sen. Edward Kennedy Sr., from 1986 when the Massachusetts Democrat led the opposition to Sessions joining the federal bench: “Mr. Sessions is a throwback to a shameful era, which I know both black and White Americans thought was in our past. It is inconceivable to me that a person of this attitude is qualified to be a U.S. Attorney, let alone a U.S. federal judge, he is I believe a disgrace to the Justice Department and he should withdraw his nomination and resign his position.”
The presiding officer, Sen. Steven Daines (R.-Mont.), warned Warren that her comments were a violation of Senate Rule XIX, with the characterization of Sessions as a disgrace to the Justice Department.
Warren, a Harvard Law School professor and attorney, pled bewilderment.
Daines, with the help of a Senate floor staffer, explained to Warren: “The rule applies to impugning conduct or motive through any form or voice to a sitting senator–form or voice includes quotes, articles or other materials.”
The senator from Montana told Warren she could proceed, and that is when she began reading large swaths of the nine-page March 19, 1986 letter by Coretta Scott King:
My longstanding commitment which I shared with my husband, Martin, to protect and enhance the rights of Black Americans, rights which include equal access toithe democratic process, compels me to testify today.
Civil rights leaders, including my husband and Albert Turner, have fought long and hard to achieve free and unfettered access to the ballot box. 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. This simply cannot be allowed to happen. Mr. Session’s conduct as U.S. Attorney, from his politically-motivated voting fraud prosecutions to his indifference toward criminal violations of civil rights laws, indicates that he lacks the temperament, fairness and judgment to be a federal judge.
Warren also included lines from the cover letter: “Mr. Sessions has used the awesome powers of his office in a shabby attempt to intimidate and frighten elderly black voters. For this reprehensible conduct, he should not be rewarded with a federal judgeship.”
The first warning came 20 minutes into her floor speech and was roughly 50 minutes in, when Majority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R.-Ky.) took over control of the floor. It is a privilege of the majority leader that he is recognized at any time.
Tonight @SenateMajLdr silenced Mrs King's voice on the Sen floor – & millions who are afraid & appalled by what's happening in our country.
— Elizabeth Warren (@SenWarren) February 8, 2017
McConnell told Daines, “The senator has impugned the motives and conduct of our colleague from Alabama as warned by the chair. Senator Warren, quote-said, ‘Sessions has used the awesome power of his office to chill the free exercise of the vote by black citizens.’ I call the Senate to order under the provisions of Rule XIX.”
Daines ruled that Warren was out of order.
After quorum call, the Senate voted 49-to-43 to sustain the ruling of the chair and then 50-to-43 that Warren could not continue in her floor speech.
Both roll calls were party line votes with eight senators absent for the first vote and seven senators absent for the second vote.
The Senate is expected to take up the Sessions confirmation Wednesday at noon.