Republicans vote to silence US senator Elizabeth Warren

Democrat tried to read letter from Martin Luther King’s widow at Jeff Sessions debate

US Senate Republicans voted on Tuesday night to silence Elizabeth Warren for reading out a letter from the widow of Martin Luther King during a debate over the nomination of Jeff Sessions for attorney general, eliciting furious response from Democrats.

Speaking on the Senate floor, Ms Warren quoted from 30-year-old correspondence from Coretta Scott King relating to Sessions’s failed judicial nomination in the 1980s. It was part of a barnstorming speech by the Massachusetts senator against Sessions’s suitability for the post and attacking his record on civil rights.

Mitch McConnell, the Republican majority leader, objected that Ms Warren had broken Senate rules that prohibit one member impugning the conduct of another. Senators then voted 49-43 to uphold a ruling in McConnell’s favour.

Ms Warren hit back on Twitter. She posted to her 1.74 million followers: “Tonight @SenateMajLdr silenced Mrs King’s voice on the Sen floor - & millions who are afraid & appalled by what’s happening in our country.” Others on Twitter were posting with the hashtag #LetLiz Speak.


Late on Tuesday night, she read the letter on Facebook Live, writing, "During the debate on whether to make Jeff Sessions the next attorney general, I tried to read a letter from Coretta Scott King on the floor of the Senate. The letter, from 30 years ago, urged the Senate to reject the nomination of Jeff Sessions to a federal judgeship. The Republicans took away my right to read this letter on the floor - so I'm right outside, reading it now." In less than an hour and a half after it was posted, the video had already received more than 2m views.

Donna Brazile, chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, said: "It's a sad day in America when the words of Martin Luther King Jr's widow are not allowed on the floor of the United States Senate. Let Elizabeth Warren speak. The American people deserve to hear how Jeff Sessions is an extremist who will be a rubber stamp for this out-of-control Trump presidency."

Violated rules

Democrats also argued that Republicans were selectively enforcing the rule. They noted that senator Ted Cruz of Texas was not formally found to have violated the rules when he accused McConnell of being a "liar" from the Senate floor.

Mr Sessions, senator for Alabama, is one of Donald Trump's most contentious cabinet picks. Leading Democrats John Lewis and Cory Booker testified at his confirmation hearing, arguing that he would harm race relations in the criminal justice system.

Speaking on the Senate floor, Ms Warren said: “He made derogatory and racist comments that should have no place in our justice system. To put senator Sessions in charge of the Department of Justice is an insult to African Americans.”

Ms Warren quoted a 1986 speech from the late senator Ted Kennedy, who referred to Sessions as a “throwback to a shameful era” and a “disgrace” to the department of justice.

She also read from a letter written by King in March 1986, expressing her opposition to Sessions as a federal district court judge for the southern district of Alabama. “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,” Mrs King wrote.

“Mr Sessions has used the awesome powers of his office in shabby attempt to intimidate and frighten elderly black voters. For this reprehensible conduct, he should not be rewarded with a federal judgeship.”

Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968. Coretta Scott King died 2006 at the age of 78.

Ms Warren was first interrupted by the presiding officer, at that point senator Steve Daines of Montana, who said she was violating Senate rules. She protested that she merely repeating the words of King and continued. But not long after, McConnell raised his objection.

“The senator has impugned the motives and conduct of our colleague from Alabama,” he said. “I call the Senator to order under the provisions of Rule 19.”

Under “Rule 19,” senators are not allowed to “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”.

Ms Warren objected: “I am surprised that the words of Coretta Scott King are not suitable for debate in the United States Senate. I ask leave of the Senate to continue my remarks.”

McConnell objected to that request and the Republican-controlled Senate voted to shut down her appeals. She will not be allowed to speak from the floor until the end of Sessions’ nomination process; the vote is expected Wednesday evening.

McConnell later defended his actions. “Senator Warren was giving a lengthy speech,” he was quoted on the Politico website as saying. “She had appeared to violate the rule. She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”

Guardian service