On the Senate floor Wednesday night, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) used parliamentary procedure to silence Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) after she quoted from a letter by Coretta Scott King, preventing her from reading it.
Later in the night, however, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) elaborated on the context of the letter and quoted from it at length unimpeded.
The letter was addressed to then-Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-SC) in 1986. In it, King objects to Sen. Jeff Sessions’ (R-AL) nomination to be a federal judge due to his use of “the power of his office as United States Attorney to intimidate and chill the free exercise of the ballot by citizens.” King continues, “Mr. Sessions has used the awesome powers of this office in a shabby attempt to intimidate and frighten elderly black voters.”
McConnell objected to Warren citing this section of the letter, saying that she had “impugned the motives and conduct of our colleague from Alabama.”
He then invoked Rule 19 to stop Warren from speaking on Sessions for the duration of the debate. The rule requires that “no Senator in debate shall, 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.”
The motion passed the Senate on the strength of Republican votes.
Sen. Merkely, however, took the floor a few hours later and quoted from the letter at length. Though the floor was largely empty, there is always a member of the majority party — the Republicans — presiding.
Merkley began by saying that he intended to “share some of the letter that was discussed earlier and share it in a fashion appropriate under our rules.”
He spoke for about 13 minutes, going over the context of the letter and the history of the suppression of black votes, including specifically quoting from the section McConnell objected to.
“Then she proceeds to address that there were occasions where individuals with legal authority chose to initiate cases specifically against African Americans while ignoring allegations of similar behavior by whites, choosing instead to chill — and now I’m quoting again — choosing instead ‘to chill the exercise of the franchise’ by blacks through misguided investigation,” Merkely said.
Merkley carefully does not say that the specific misguided investigation King was referring to was spearheaded by Sessions. But he does extensively quote the letter that McConnell prevented Warren from reading by censuring her, including parts that directly address Senator Sessions, such as this quote of King’s: “I do not believe Jefferson Sessions possesses the requisite judgement, competence, and sensitivity to the rights guaranteed by the federal civil rights laws to qualify for appointment to the Federal district court.”
In a tweet, Merkley questions why they, all male Senators, were not silenced for performing virtually the same act as their female colleague.
— Senator Jeff Merkley (@SenJeffMerkley) February 8, 2017
Warren, notably, was censured for reading a letter that had been addressed to the Senate 30 years ago. Before Merkley yielded the floor last night, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) pointed out that this meant that King’s words had long been known to the Senate. He also questioned whether the letter, as such, was a matter of Senate Record — and therefore whether Warren had been censured for reading something that was a matter of record.
The letter was published for the first time last month. It had been addressed to then-Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Thurmond 30 years ago, who never entered it into the Senate Record.
After McConnell’s censure of Warren, the letter’s contents have gone viral.
Warren too read the letter in its entirety: standing right outside the floor, in a video she posted to Facebook.
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This story has been updated with new developments.