Elizabeth Warren and the rising passions of the Senate

Senators and observers are very concerned that the Senate is losing its character as the chamber of reasoned, civil deliberation at a crucial time.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D) of Massachusetts reacts to being rebuked by the Senate leadership and accused of impugning a fellow senator, Attorney General-designate, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R) of Alabama on Wednesday, Feb. 8, on Capitol Hill.

Has the US Senate lost its cool over Elizabeth Warren?

Traditionally, the Senate has been the place where cooler heads prevail, where bipartisan deals are struck, where House passions are tamed. That’s the way the Founding Fathers designed this slower-moving chamber.

But Tuesday’s rare move by Republicans, in which Senator Warren (D) of Massachusetts was forced to sit down and cease speaking for “impugning” fellow Sen. Jeff Sessions (R) of Alabama, illustrates the ratcheting up of sharp-edged partisanship.

That has some senators and observers very concerned that the Senate is losing its character – if it’s not lost already – as the chamber of reasoned, civil deliberation. They’re particularly concerned that this is happening at a time when a president with a fiery temperament occupies the White House.

“Given the tone of the Trump campaign and the Trump presidency so far, the Senate has the opportunity to take the political high road and model respectful partisan differences…. But that opportunity is being missed,” says Amy Black, a political scientist at Wheaton College in Illinois.

And there's no sign of backing down. Republicans plan to push through major changes in health care and taxes using a budget procedure that leaves out Democrats – exactly the GOP complaint when President Obama forced through the Affordable Care Act without a single Republican vote.

Meanwhile, Democrats have brought the confirmation process of the president’s cabinet nominees to a historic crawl, using boycotts and maximum debate time between confirmations. Ahead looms a tense showdown over the president’s Supreme Court nominee.

A rare invoking of rule 19

The latest fight unfolded during an all-night debate leading up to Wednesday evening's expected confirmation of President Trump's nominee for attorney general, Senator Sessions of Alabama.

On Tuesday evening, Warren was reading from a 1986 letter by civil rights leader Coretta Scott King that spoke of her “strong opposition” to Sessions for consideration as a federal judge over civil rights issues.

Warren, the liberal icon known for standing up to Mr. Trump, received a warning from the presiding officer that she was breaking Senate Rule 19, a rarely used rule that forbids a senator from “impugning” the motives of another senator or referring offensively to another senator. In the past, it has applied even to the writings of others.

Warren continued, but was later silenced by majority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky, who repeated as evidence the senator’s quoting of Mrs. King's statement that “Sessions has used the awesome power of his office to chill the free exercise of the vote by black citizens.”

Told to take her seat, Warren appealed but lost on a party-line vote. She then left the chamber to read the letter via Facebook. The entire incident has gone viral on social media, powered by the hashtags #LetLizSpeak and #ShePersisted.

“I certainly hope that this anti-free speech attitude is not traveling down Pennsylvania Avenue to our great chamber,” said Senate minority leader Charles Schumer (D) of New York, in a vigorous defense of Warren on the Senate floor on Wednesday.

Later Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, the Senate’s only African-American Republican, took to the Senate floor to give an impassioned defense of Sessions.

After reading tweets criticizing his support of Sessions, leaving out those that used the "n-word," he said, "You see, what I’m surprised by – just a smidgen, is that the liberal left that speaks and desires for all of us to be tolerant do not want to be tolerant of anyone that disagrees with where they are coming from."

When playing hardball 'feels principled'

Julian Zelizer, a political historian at Princeton University in New Jersey, says the deep partisanship incentivizes both parties to play hardball. "There is no cooling function left" in the Senate, he says in an email to the Monitor.

On top of that, Democrats are now facing massive policy threats and a president many believe is dangerous to democracy, he says. “Playing hardball in those circumstances feels principled, not just political,” he adds.

Asked to comment on the Warren-McConnell-Sessions flap – especially in the era of Trump – Sen. Susan Collins (R) of Maine described it as “unfortunate.” The rare invocation of the rule “shows a breakdown of comity on the Senate floor.”

Senator Collins, one of the few moderate Republicans left in the Senate, is very concerned about the level of political discourse in the country, describing it as “the worst it’s ever been.” That rolls back to Washington, she says.

In an interview, Collins cited Senator Schumer's blasting of her compromise bill to replace the Affordable Care Act before he had even read it or it had been introduced.

“There’s fault on both sides, but people are so whipped up into a frenzy, and have not come to grips with the fact that the campaign is over.”

Her colleague, Sen. Bob Corker (R) of Tennessee, sees things differently. In an interview, he described the Warren flap as not that big deal, “a blip on the radar screen.”

He and others tried to defuse the situation by talking to Warren on the Senate floor, he said.

But if she’s running for president, she “may not want it to go away,” he added. As for the Democrats’ big slowdown of nominees, they have to show their base they’re putting up a fight. “This too will pass.”

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