The past three weeks have seen The U.S. Senate sink farther and farther into degradation, even changing their rules in order to meet without any Democrats present for presidential nominee conformations. Their purpose was to push through racist, sexist Trump nominees who lied on their applications, omitted salient information, used power in Senate to make money from purchasing stocks, employed an undocumented worker, physically assaulted his wife, was convicted of lying to Congress, clearly demonstrated incompetence for the nominated position, and much more. The bar is so low for approving a nominee that the new Secretary of Education received only 50 percent of the Senate vote, not even a passing grade in the schools that she will supervise.
Republicans are a long way from being “the party of Lincoln.” Early in his career, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) interned for another Kentucky senator, Sen. John Sherman Cooper, a liberal Republican who championed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. John Nichols described Cooper’s influence on McConnell who wrote, “Despite the considerable opposition from back home, Senator Cooper never wavered.” McConnell’s memoir praised Cooper for his courage during a long record of advancing “racial equality for every American citizen.”
Those days are long gone for McConnell. When respected Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) began reading a letter from Coretta Scott King about U.S. Attorney General nominee, Jeff Sessions, actions when he was Alabama attorney general, they told her to sit down and be quiet.
In the letter that Warren was not allowed to read, King wrote about why Sen. Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III should not become a federal judge:
“Anyone who has used the power of his office as United States Attorney to intimidate and chill the free exercise of the ballot by citizens should not be elevated to our courts.… 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.”
McConnell object that reading the letter “has impugned the motives and conduct of our colleague from Alabama…”
Warren expressed shock “that the words of Coretta Scott King are not suitable for debate in the United States Senate” and said, “I ask leave of the Senate to continue my remarks.” McConnell answered that she had violated Senate rules by “assailing the reputation of a colleague” and objected to her continuing. Warren appealed, but Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT) announced, “Objection is heard. The senator will take her seat.” The party-line vote supported McConnell who declared that Warren had to be silenced because “she was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”
Coretta Scott King sent the letter to the Senate during Sessions’ failed confirmation hearing in 1986, but Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-SC), then-chair of the Judiciary Committee, failed to enter it into congressional record. Washington Post’s Wesley Lowry and others discovered it and made it public. Although the letter was written over 30 years ago, Sessions and other Republicans are still suppressing votes from minorities and low-income people, rights no longer protected by the Voting Rights Act because of a Supreme Court decision.
Republicans are proudly enacting voter suppression laws, announcing that this is the reason for passing them. An assertion from Dictator Donald Trump (DDT) that over three million “illegals” gave Hillary Clinton the majority vote is fueling the fire of further voter suppression, and Jeff Sessions, now the U.S. Attorney General, will support increased disenfranchisement of millions of voters.
Warren was censured because of Rule 19, originally intended to maintain civility and decorum in the Senate. It was created 115 years ago when two senators started a fistfight over a disagreement regarding the annexation of the Philippines. After several other senators found themselves punched while trying to stop the fight, the Senate censured the two who started the fight and tightened its rules in floor debate. Scholars have found only two other times Rule 19 was invoked–1915 and 1952. McConnell said that Warrens quotes from King had crossed the line.
Which line that is may not be clear. Two years ago, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) accused McConnell of lying, saying “he is willing to say things that he knows are false.” When Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) asked Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) to lower his voice, Cotton started a shouting match with Schumer. On the Senate floor in 2004, VP Dick Cheney told Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) to “f—k yourself.” Less than a week ago, Sen. David Perdue (R-GA) ridiculed Schumer for crying when he talked about relatives killed in the Holocaust.
Republicans showed an even greater level of hypocrisy when four male senators were permitted to read the letter from King. After Elizabeth Warren was told to shut up and sit down for the next 30 hours of debate about Sessions, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) read parts of the letter that had caused McConnell to invoke Rule 19 against Warren. No one stopped Merkley who concluded with this quote from King’s letter:
“I do not believe Jefferson Sessions possesses the requisite judgment, competence and sensitivity to the rights guaranteed by the federal civil rights laws to qualify for appointment to the federal district court.”
Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM) entered the letter into the congressional record, and Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and Bernie Sanders (D-VT) also read from the letter.
Cory Booker (D-NJ) added that he was “gravely disappointed” and found it “disturbing” that Warren was silenced while exercising her constitutional duty. He said, “She wasn’t just quoting something that she heard on the street. She was actually quoting Coretta Scott King.” Booker also tweeted, “McConnell didn’t just silence @SenWarren—he silenced civil rights icon Coretta Scott King.”
The gender of the person who was silenced did not go unnoticed by one of the men allowed to read the letter. In a tweet, Merkley asked, “Why silence only the woman?”
The passage of Jeff Sessions out of committee shows how far right the GOP has gone. In 1986, his confirmation failed by a vote of 10-8 in a Senate that had one fewer Democrat than the current one. Even worse, the silencing of Warren shows how drunk on power the Republicans are. They seem to be saying, “Rules be damned—we’ll just change or pervert them.” That’s the new normal. Forty-nine senators, mostly male, voted to keep one of their colleagues from speaking the facts about Sessions’ history. These facts about him kept him from being confirmed 30 years ago; now his same attitude toward minorities is just the new normal.
When Orrin Hatch (R-UT) accused Warren on the Senate floor of being indelicate in her opposition, he said, “Think of his wife. She is a really fine person.” He finished his diatribe against Warren by saying, “Even if everything she said was true, I don’t think that was the right thing to do.” Hatch had no thought for the people of the United States. And then those Republicans who agreed that Sessions is racist voted to make him the person in charge of racial equality in the United States.
No longer do Republicans try to cover up their racist attitudes that block minorities from voting, an activity that should be constitutional. Instead, they brag about how they have stopped them from voting.
And no longer do they try to conceal their disdain for women. The Republican senators followed the pattern found in many studies, that women who speak up are considered less competent and less suited to leadership yet more often accused of being too aggressive. The Senate ordered a woman to sit down and be silent because she was reading a letter from a black female activist during Black History Month.
Silencing Elizabeth Warren may only energize the Democratic base. We can only hope women voters get fed up being silenced by the Republicans.