So, let me get this straight. It’s okay if Senator Ted Cruz calls Majority Leader Mitch McConnell a liar on the floor of the Senate. But it’s not okay if Senator Elizabeth Warren reads letters critical of Attorney General nominee Senator Jeff Sessions from the late Senator Edward Kennedy and Coretta Scott King (describing him at a time when Sessions was not in the Senate)? The King letter said that Sessions, under consideration for a federal judgeship in Alabama in 1986, had, as Alabama Attorney General, used “the awesome power of his office to chill the free exercise of the vote by black citizens.” The Kennedy statement called Sessions a “throwback to a shameful era.” Both Democrats and Republicans voted to defeat the Sessions judgeship.
Both Cruz and Warren may have violated Senate rule 19, barring anyone from “impugning” or speaking ill of a fellow Senator, but it is total hypocrisy that McConnell should have invoked that obscure rule and Senate Republicans supported silencing her. Warren was barred from participating in any Senate discussion of the Sessions nomination. As Bernie Sanders said afterward, the American people have a right to and expect a vigorous discussion of any issue. The GOP’s shutting Warren down, Sanders said, is “incomprehensible.” Sanders and three other Democrats followed up reading the King letter without comparable punishment, and other Democrats stood by her.
Apparently, truth is no defense. McConnell, who tolerated Cruz’ personal insult, deemed the words of the Rev. Martin Luther King’s widow to be so inappropriate they couldn’t be read on the floor of the Senate. Republican Senator Orrin Hatch remembers the old days and deplores the current tone of the upper branch. He said that, while he sometimes disagrees with Sessions, he has known him for 20 years and always found him to be a gentleman. Veteran Hatch said that Warren’s prolonged attack may not have risen to a violation of Rule 19, but “it came pretty close.” Decorum in the once deliberative body has long since left the building. Its norms are flouted regularly.
Rule 19 was promulgated in 1902 when a dispute between two Democratic Senators from South Carolina erupted in a fist fight. In 1979, name calling erupted between Connecticut Democrat Lowell Weicker and Republican John Heinz of Pennsylvania. Heinz cited Rule 19, but Majority Leader Robert Byrd got them to shake hands. And that was that.
The bottom line is that Sessions’ entire record should be scrutinized before he is confirmed, as he inevitably will be, to be Attorney General of the United States. We look to leaders like Warren to stand tall and evaluate Trump’s nominees, warts and all. She shouldn’t have been subjected to humiliation and silenced for fulfilling her responsibility to do just that.
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