Warren was formally silenced last night during the Democrats’ 24-hour anti–Jeff Sessions speakathon, in one of the more absurd displays of congressional partisanship in recent memory. The Massachusetts senator was reading a letter denouncing Sessions that had been written by Martin Luther King Jr.’s widow Coretta Scott King in 1986, when McConnell, the majority leader, objected. “The senator has impugned the motives and conduct of our colleague from Alabama, as warned by the chair,” McConnell said, referring to the portion of the letter that accused Sessions of using “the awesome power of his office to chill the pre-exercise of the vote by black citizens.” (That said, it wasn’t until Warren defended black voting rights that the gavel came down.) The Senate then voted along partisan lines to gag Warren.
“Sen. Warren was giving a lengthy speech. She had appeared to violate the rule. She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted,” McConnell said. “Nevertheless, she persisted,” which sounds like the last line of a low rent Charlotte Brontë novel, has since become a rallying cry for progressives.
Formally silencing a senator is extremely rare, but in this instance it was also ridiculous—Warren was reading a letter that had been read in the Senate in 1986 during Sessions’s confirmation hearings for a federal judgeship. It’s not only a public record, but an extremely relevant one, given the fact that Sessions is a cabinet nominee. (Sessions is still in the Senate because the Republicans needed his vote to push through Betsy DeVos.)
But this was also a rare tactical blunder from McConnell, who rose to power through cunning rather than ideology and who outfoxed former President Obama a number of times during his two terms in office. Before McConnell’s interruption, the Democrats’ anti-Sessions floor session was getting very little attention. McConnell not only made it a rallying cry for Democrats—boosting Warren’s profile in the process—but he also brought the King letter to the forefront again. The GOP is already rattled by a unified and vocal progressive base that is tying up phone lines and disrupting town halls. McConnell played right into its hands.