The United States Senate lives and dies by procedure. As an institution, it is governed by a web of arcane rules that if weaponized properly, allows the majority party to both direct Senate business and squash the ability of the minority party do much of anything to oppose that agenda. Senate Republicans did this with great success during the Obama administration, so much so that they stole a Supreme Court seat, vacated by the late Antonin Scalia, from the former president. But during the final vote for the confirmation of Sen. Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III (R-AL) to Attorney General of the United States, Republicans weaponized Senate procedure to advance a different, but still time-honored tradition in American politics: Silencing women’s dissent.
Senate Democrats took to the floor on Tuesday night to stall as long as they could the final vote on Sessions. The man who both Republicans and Democrats during the Reagan administration rejected as being too racist to be a federal judge is the perfect fit for the Trump administration. Sessions is unapologetically anti-voting rights, anti-reproductive rights, and is pro-“law and order policing.” That’s the kind of policing we witnessed being rolled out in Ferguson, Missouri, in response to unarmed Black Lives Matter activists protesting the death of Michael Brown.
During his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sessions, the former prosecutor, had to walk back remarks he made while campaigning for Trump when he said he wasn't sure whether the president’s admission to grabbing a woman by her pussy would be considered sexual assault (he said in October, "I think that's a stretch." In January, he had an apparent change of heart, saying "Clearly it would be"). Sessions as Attorney General embodies everything Trump promised on the campaign trail, which is why it was incumbent on Democrats to do all they could to at least gum up the works against his appointment.
Among those leading the charge against Sessions was Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA). As dictated by Senate procedure, each member is allotted a certain amount of time to speak before the next senator’s turn. Warren decided to use her allotted time to read aloud, and into the record, a ten-page letter written by civil-rights activist and Martin Luther King widow Coretta Scott King in 1986 in opposition to Sessions’s nomination to the federal bench.
“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,” King wrote.
Warren didn’t get much further into the letter before Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell invoked a rule against “disparaging colleagues on the Senate floor” to silence Warren and end the reading of King’s letter.
“I am surprised that the words of Coretta Scott King are not suitable for debate in the United States Senate,” Warren said after McConnell told her to take a seat.
The thing is, Warren wasn’t violating any Senate rule when McConnell silenced her. Jeff Sessions was before the Senate as a nominee, not as a sitting member of the U.S. Senate. Instead McConnell manipulated a rule of procedure to then force a vote.
How do we know Warren didn’t violate any rule by reading King’s letter? As Rewire’s Christine Grimaldi reported, at least four of Warren’s male colleagues were subsequently allowed to read King’s letter on the floor without any objection from McConnell.
We should all sit for a moment with the fact that King’s words were only allowed in Senate debate over the most openly anti-civil-rights Attorney General nominee in our history to come through the mouths of white men and only after a woman senator.
It is one thing to manipulate Senate procedure to silence a colleague or to take to Twitter to lash out at critics. But Sessions and Trump now have law enforcement and the military at their disposal to silence critics of the administration. We’ve seen how willing Republicans are to bend the rules in their favor and how quick the administration is to threaten those it sees as opposition. With Sessions at the helm of Attorney General, there’s every reason to believe he’ll call out law enforcement on protesters and would have no problem bending or breaking the rules to do so.
This is exactly the message McConnell wanted to send by trying to silence Warren. The Senate is an institution of rules, and those rules are first and foremost controlled by and for the benefit of, white male senators. Dissent will be tolerated only if it is polite and conforms to those expectations. Which means dissent from its women members is not to be tolerated in any form, because by definition female dissent is neither polite nor in conformity with the rules.
And if it means manipulating Senate rules like McConnell did to quiet that dissent, so be it. Consider it a preview of things to come.
It is also exactly the message Sessions will send as Attorney General because it is exactly the same message as Trump the campaigner and Trump the president sent to the public at large. News that is critical of the administration is “fake.” Only “so-called” federal judges rule against Trump’s blatantly unconstitutional Muslim travel ban. Women who have the audacity to speak out will be muzzled.
Except of course we won’t be.