USA Politics First Look

Why did Senator Warren get silenced during the Jeff Sessions hearing?

A 30-year-old letter by Coretta Scott King has disqualified Sen. Elizabeth Warren from taking part in the ongoing debate over the nomination of Sen. Jeff Sessions for attorney general. 

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., questions Education Secretary-designate Betsy DeVos on Capitol Hill in Washington, at Ms. DeVos' confirmation hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, on Jan. 17, 2017.
Carolyn Kaster/AP
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A 30-year-old letter written by the widow of Martin Luther King Jr., has cost Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D) of Massachusetts the right to participate in the ongoing debate over the nomination of Sen. Jeff Sessions for attorney general.

Senator Warren was rebuked after reading comments made by Coretta Scott King around the time of Senator Sessions's failed judicial nomination in 1986, in which Ms. King said that while acting as federal prosecutor, Mr. Sessions used his power to "chill the free exercise of the vote by black citizens." The move put Ms. Warren in violation of Senate rules for "impugning the motives" of the attorney general nominee, Republican majority leader Mitch McConnell said.

The decision to silence Warren was widely criticized by Democrats who accused her fellow lawmakers of silencing a civil rights icon. Warren herself defended her remarks, arguing: "I'm reading a letter from Coretta Scott King to the Judiciary Committee from 1986 that was admitted into the record. I'm simply reading what she wrote about what the nomination of Jeff Sessions to be a federal court judge meant and what it would mean in history for her." Later, on Twitter, she vowed "not be silent while the Republicans rubber stamp an AG who will never stand up to the @POTUS when he breaks the law."

Meanwhile, the entire situation – both Warren's remarks and the response – was lamented by Democrats and Republicans alike as an example of partisanship getting in the way of productive debate. 

"Turn on the news and watch these parliaments around the world where people throw chairs at each other.... I'm not arguing that we're anywhere near that here, but we're flirting with it," said Sen. Marco Rubio (R) of Florida, as reported by The Hill. "We have become a society incapable of having debates anymore." 

The nomination of Sessions to attorney general has proven to be one of President Trump's most controversial nominations, in large part because of the allegations of racism that cost him a federal judgeship three decades ago, as Patrik Jonsson reported for The Christian Science Monitor in November: 

Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, a Southern country lawyer turned senator who, according to congressional transcripts, repeatedly referred to a black assistant United States attorney as “boy,” has been chosen by President-elect Donald Trump to replace America’s first female black US attorney general, Loretta Lynch.

The shift in tone and optics couldn’t be starker: To critics, it’s the return of a cultural hard line on legal issues from abortion to immigration, from legal marijuana to police reform. Senator Sessions, if confirmed by the US Senate, will head a Justice Department that some expect to not just parse federal policy, but to more aggressively enforce it....

But some caution against jumping to conclusions about Sessions, suggesting that he could be a balancing voice on Trump’s new team. While the concerns about racism are a clear part of Sessions’s record, so is his push to desegregate Alabama schools during his time as a US attorney, as well as his demand for the death penalty for the son of a Klan leader, who had randomly killed a black teen.

Senator McConnell defended the decision to silence Warren, noting that it was not without prior warning and said it drew on Rule 19 from the Senate rulebook, which states that senators may not “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.”

"Senator Warren was giving a lengthy speech," he said after the vote. "She had appeared to violate the rule. She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted."

Incensed Democrats took to Twitter shortly after the rebuke to defend Warren with the hashtag #LetLizSpeak, with some decrying McConnell's defense as sexist. 

"It is demeaning to the memory of Coretta Scott King and harmful to the process for the Republicans to silence," said Sen. Kamala Harris (D) of California in a tweet. 

Not all Republican lawmakers agreed that Warren's comments warranted silence. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah said he didn't know if Warren's remarks were in violation of Senate rules. Still, he urged Democrats to stop treating Sessions like a "terrible person." 

"All of us need to take stock and need to start thinking about the people on the other side of the aisle and need to start thinking about how we might bring each other together," he said.

Of course, in today's world of social media, it is hard to silence anyone intent on getting a message out. Warren went on to read the letter out loud on Facebook, where it has since had more than six million views.

This report contains material from the Associated Press.