WASHINGTON ― Senate Republicans gave up their blockade of the words of Martin Luther King Jr.’s widow Wednesday morning, allowing two male senators to read Coretta Scott King’s denunciation of Sen. Jeff Sessions after barring Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) from doing so the night before.
Warren, who was one of the many Democrats taking the floor late into Tuesday in opposition to the Alabama Republican’s nomination to be attorney general, was blocked by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) when she tried to read a letter that King wrote against Sessions in 1986 when Sessions was up for a federal judgeship.
McConnell objected on the grounds that she was violating the rarely invoked Senate Rule XIX, which bars senators from “impugning” their colleagues.
Democrats who challenged the shutdown of Warren were twice voted down by all the Republicans present. Warren was barred from the debate, and King’s words were excluded, although Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) managed to read some into the record anyway.
Social media erupted over the blockade, guaranteeing that Warren’s and King’s words got vastly more attention than they might have, and the objections vanished Wednesday morning when Sens. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) tried the same move as Warren.
Udall went first, arguing that King’s words “must be included” because the Senate was not weighing Sessions as a colleague, but as a nominee, and because her words have direct bearing on his previous service as a prosecutor.
“It was the judgment of Coretta Scott King, widow of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King, that [Sessions] used the office of the United States attorney for Alabama to, quote, these are Coretta Scott King’s words, ‘chill the free exercise of the vote by black citizens.’ End quote,” Udall said. “That was her opinion at the time.”
He went on to read her full letter, as well as the testimony she prepared to oppose Sessions’ 1986 nomination for a federal judgeship.
No one objected, nor did anyone object as Brown followed suit.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) also read King’s words, and demanded that McConnell apologize to Warren.
“I am going to vote against Jeff Sessions to become our next attorney general, but I am even more alarmed about the decision of the majority leader here in the Senate to deny one of our leading senators the right to voice her opinion, the right to put into the congressional record what I have just said,” Sanders said.
“And if Mr. McConnell, or anybody else, wants to deny me the right to debate Jeff Sessions’ qualifications, go for it,” he added. “But I’m here, I will participate in debate, I will oppose Jeff Sessions, and I think Sen. Warren is owed an apology.”
Don Stewart, a spokesman for McConnell, said no one objected to Udall or Brown because a point of order under Rule XIX can’t be done retroactively, and neither had preceded their reading of the letter with a long, disparaging speech as McConnell said Warren had.
“Last night, Sen. Warren had been warned by the chair and continued to violate the rule anyway,” Stewart said.