U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, on Wednesday defended her vote to uphold a measure to silence Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., during a debate about attorney general nominee Jeff Sessions Tuesday night.
Warren was reading aloud from a letter written by Martin Luther King Jr.’s late widow that was critical of Sessions’ behavior toward African-Americans when he was a U.S. attorney in Alabama. Sessions, who was confirmed to be attorney general Wednesday night, is a Republican U.S. senator from Alabama, and a seldom-used Senate rule that prohibits members from impugning “the motives or integrity of any senator” was invoked to silence Warren.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, invoked the rule, and Collins voted with her fellow Republicans to uphold it. Maine’s other senator, independent Angus King, voted against the measure. It passed 49-43.
After Warren was rebuked, three Democratic senators, all men, read the letter aloud without any senator invoking the rule.
Women, in particular, criticized the developments on social media, seeing a double standard in men like McConnell silencing a woman while letting men speak.
“Senator Collins fully supports Senator Warren’s right to say whatever she wants, whenever she wants, off the Senate floor,” Collins’ spokeswoman, Annie Clark, said via email. “But on the Senate floor there are rules which govern debate and procedure and it is important for all Senators to follow those rules.”
King’s spokesman, Scott Ogden, said by email that the senator “was troubled by previous – and certainly more egregious – instances where the rule was not enforced, which led him to question whether invoking the rule in this instance was truly an attempt to maintain civility, as the rule intends, or more of an attempt to stifle debate of a major Cabinet nominee.”
In 2015, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, called McConnell a liar on the Senate floor and, though he refused to back off his statement, was not rebuked under the rule, known as Rule 19, which can be invoked by any senator. Senators only hold a vote on the measure if it is then challenged, which is what happened Tuesday night.
The move against Warren threw the Senate into turmoil, as the body had been debating the merits of Sessions as a candidate to head the nation’s law enforcement. Democrats argued that McConnell was suppressing free debate of the nominee by invoking the rule.
Under the ruling, Warren was prevented from speaking on the Senate floor until after Sessions was confirmed, which the Senate did in a 52-47 vote Wednesday night.
The letter, which Coretta Scott King wrote to the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1986, blasted Sessions, who was then seeking confirmation to become a federal judge, for oppressing African-Americans when he was a U.S. attorney in Alabama. “Mr. Sessions has used the awesome powers of his office in a shabby attempt to intimidate and frighten elderly black voters,” wrote King, who died in 2006. “For this reprehensible conduct, he should not be rewarded with a federal judgeship.”
Sessions’ 1986 nomination to the federal bench was blocked by the Republican-controlled committee after numerous justice department officials who worked for him testified he had made racially disparaging remarks.
Collins’ spokeswoman said the rule to silence Warren was there to facilitate debate by preventing personal attacks between Senators while on the floor. “Had the Senate not upheld the ruling of the Chair, it would have set a precedent that would have seriously damaged this important rule,” Clark said via email.
Democratic Sens. Tom Udall of New Mexico and Sherrod Brown of Ohio protested Warren’s rebuke by reading the King letter aloud, as did independent Bernie Sanders of Vermont. None of their colleagues invoked Rule 19.
A congressional staffer who was not authorized to speak on the subject told the Press Herald that the Republicans had changed course “after seeing the backlash” and realizing they had made “a strategic mistake” they did not want to repeat.
Asked why Collins did not invoke Rule 19 against the other senators, Clark, her spokeswoman, said the senator wasn’t on the floor when they were speaking. Clark added that the reason Warren was treated differently might be because she had read from other letters critical of Sessions, whereas “the other senators simply read Mrs. King’s letter.”
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, said the move against Warren was uncalled for. “I sincerely hope this anti-free speech attitude is not traveling down Pennsylvania Avenue to our great chamber,” he said, The Associated Press reported.
McConnell defended the rebuke, saying: “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”
McConnell’s words triggered a big reaction on social media, with people posting the quote as captions over pictures of defiant women, from Malala, the Pakistani girls’ education activist who survived a Taliban assassination attempt and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, to Princess Leia confronting to Darth Vader.
Sessions’s confirmation was never in much doubt, in large part because Collins – the Republican Senate caucuses’ most moderate member – championed his nomination early on, even going so far as to introduce him before the judiciary committee. Her support has surprised many people, as Sessions is anything but moderate.
An opponent of gay marriage and hate crime protections for gay and transgender people; a critic of drug sentencing reform and cannabis legalization, Sessions has said “good people don’t smoke marijuana.” He’s also a critic of the Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion and has defended warrantless wiretapping and an interrogation technique called waterboarding, widely regarded as torture prior to 2001.
Asked by the Press Herald last month about some of Sessions’ more controversial positions, Collins’ office did not respond. In interviews with national media outlets she has emphasized the personal qualities of a senator she has served with since 1996, calling him “a decent, honorable, patriotic individual” who was “not getting a fair shake from those who were denigrating him.”
Colin Woodard can be contacted at 791-6317 or at: