By Jessica Pupo
Sen. Tom Udall. Sen. Jeff Merkley. Sen. Sherrod Brown. Sen. Bernie Sanders. These are the names of the male U.S. Senators who were allowed to read the same Coretta Scott King letter that got Senator Elizabeth Warren gagged on the Senate floor.
While Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell claimed his invoking of Rule 19 was because Senator Warren imputed a fellow senator, he didn’t stop her male counterparts for reading the same words and even renounce them for it.
During the confirmation hearings of then Senator Jeff Sessions for the position of Attorney General, Senator Elizabeth Warren began to read from a letter written by Coretta Scott King, widow of Martin Luther King Jr., in opposition to the nomination of Jeff Sessions for federal judgeship in 1986.
Before she could get very far though, Mitch McConnell invoked Rule 19 by stating she had violated this portion: “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.”
This rule, rarely invoked, was created in response to a fistfight that broke out on the Senate floor after insults were exchanged-not because a political opponent was reading a letter of dissent.
She was not only prevented from finishing the letter, but also barred from being recognized at all until the conclusion of Jeff Sessions’ confirmation hearing for Attorney General.
McConnell’s action backfired spectacularly when his silencing of Warren made her a the leading news story and catalyzed her supporters to make sure the letter is read by as many people as possible.
Some of her supporters were her fellow senators, who read either a portion or the entirety of the letter on the Senate floor. While they should be applauded for reading the letter and ensuring King’s words would be a part of the official record, I can’t help but feel annoyance at the blatant selective enforcement of Senate Rule 19.
Once again a woman’s voice was silenced for the same words that a man was allowed to speak.
Warren did thank the Senators for reading King’s letter because its importance and relevance was too great to leave out.
But the problem remains: if Udall, Merkley, Brown, and Sanders had all also been banned from speaking, then you could blame it all on a partisan enforcement of an old Senate rule to silence the opposition from reading a letter from an influential civil rights figure.
Perhaps the GOP thought they were somehow making up for their mistake of silencing her in the first place, but all it did was deepen the wound of their sexist handling of the situation.
Senator Warren is one of the key figures of the progressive movement so there was undoubtedly a partisan factor in silencing a Senator who is revered by the left.
However, it cannot be ignored that other senators of her own party, notably Bernie Sanders, were able to read from the letter, some in full, and not be stopped.
All I can I say is: thank you, Mitch McConnell for creating the next rallying cry—“Nevertheless, she persisted.”