Emily Kowalik ‘18
Assistant Opinions Editor
Senate Republicans used an obscure rule to keep Senator Elizabeth Warren from speaking during her criticism of Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, Trump’s nominee for attorney general. Warren quoted from letters written in 1986 by Coretta Scott King and Edward Kennedy, who at the time was a senator, which accused Sessions of racial bias and called him a “disgrace to the Justice Department.” Warren was silenced under Rule 19, a rarely used rule of the Senate. It prevents senators from “directly or indirectly” attributing to another senator “any conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming a senator.”
While Kennedy’s letter called Sessions a “disgrace” it was during Warren’s reading of the letter from Coretta Scott King that Senate Republicans warned her that she was in violation of Rule 19.
That letter stated that Sessions “lacks the temperament, fairness and judgment to be a federal judge,” and accused him of pursuing “shabby” voter fraud cases against African American activists as a prosecutor. Twenty-five minutes later McConnell said the quotes from King crossed the line and ordered Warren to cease her “lengthy speech” and sit down. McConnell said that the fact that she persisted after being warned lead to her sanction.
In voting to silence Warren, the senators effectively barred her from speaking further in the debate over Sessions’ nomination. What was particularly disgusting about the Republicans move was that they not only muzzled a highly-respected senator, but also silenced the words of Coretta Scott King, the widow of Martin Luther King Jr. I concur with Donna Brazile, chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, who said: “It’s a sad day in America when the words of Martin Luther King Jr.’s widow are not allowed on the floor of the United States Senate.”
Was this rare party-line vote to rebuke Warren necessary to protect the civility of the senate debate or was it just an attempt to silence a dissenting female voice?
Senate minority leader Charles Schumer accused Senate Republicans of applying a “shocking double standard” in the enforcement of Senate rules. “This is not what America is about, silencing speech especially in this chamber,” he said. Warren was only “engaging in that tradition of forceful but respectful debate when she was cut off.”
But I think that even though the Senate eventually confirmed Jeff Sessions as attorney general, following the bitter debate in the chamber, we shall see that the Republicans’ effort to silence Senator Warren was an ill-fated strategy which will return to haunt them in days to come. McConnell’s criticism of Warren, “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted,” has been transformed into her supporters’ rallying cry.
All across social media, Warren supporters posted the rebuke with the hashtags #ShePersists and #LetLizSpeak. This example of support of women’s rights, along with the massive Women’s Marches that have sprouted throughout the country, may be signaling the start of the campaign of yet another strong, vocal woman for president.
Senate Republicans should learn that the fact that the current president is an infamous misogynist does not mean that they can follow his example by suppressing women’s voices. The public does notice such blatant attempts to shut down women who dare to “persist.”