Two nights ago, during the debate on the nomination of Jeff Sessions for Attorney General, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell silenced Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts after she read a statement by the late Edward Kennedy (whose seat she now occupies) and a letter from Coretta Scott King violently criticizing Sessions back in the 1980s, when he was rejected for a judgeship. When Warren appealed the ruling and called for a vote, the Republican majority affirmed it. McConnell’s ruling was absurd on its face, and the vote was vindictive. But what everyone seems to have missed in the controversy is the utter hypocrisy of McConnell—who, less than two years ago, let a far worse iinsult from a fellow Republican go completely unpunished and without any response at all.
Although Senate Rule 19 is very rarely invoked, it exists for good reason. Its prohibition against Senators impugning one another’s motives was obviously designed to prevent the chamber’s debates from turning into episodes of Jerry Springer. Violent clashes often threatened on the eve of the Civil War, when southern Senators often exhorted colleagues to shoot northerners who dared to challenge slavery, and I have reported on one that took place in the House of Representatives in 1945 when a Mississippi Congressman said a Michigan colleague was “mixed up with” the Communist Party and the Michigan man called him a liar. Now we are again engaged in a great political civil war, to paraphrase Lincoln, and such exchanges are to be expected. Yet the application of the rule in this case was absurd.
Senator Warren did not quote what Kennedy and King said about Sessions to his face during an exchange with him on the floor. She was not debating Senator Sessions, she was debating with her colleagues on the question of whether Senator Sessions should depart the Senate to become Attorney General. When the Senate is contemplating a candidate for the chief law enforcement officer of the United States, Senators have a right and a duty to examine his career thoroughly. That was all that Warren was doing. After she was silenced, Bernie Sanders and two other Democrats read King’s letter as well, without penalty. McConnell singled out Warren, in all probability, because she is the sharpest thorn in the Republicans’ side, and perhaps because she is a woman.
What everyone seems to have forgotten, however, is that McConnell conspicuously failed to invoke rule 19 just a year and a half ago, when a more obvious breach of Senate decorum occurred. The offender, in that case, was Senator Ted Cruz of Texas—then making his name as the most undisciplined member of the Republican majority—and the target was none other than McConnell himself. Cruz was leading the fight to kill the Import-Export Bank, one of those sinister Washington institutions that strike fear into Tea Partiers’ hearts because it actually makes loans to American corporations to make them more competitive in world markets. McConnell had refused to allow a Senate vote on Cruz’s measure, and Cruz bluntly called him a liar on the Senate floor. McConnell made no motion to silence Cruz. Instead, neither he nor any other Republican Senator said a single word against him. That reflected the new balance of power within the Republican Party. “Tea Party groups, the Heritage Foundation’s political arm, and Charles G. and David H. Koch’s Freedom Partners,” the New York Tines reported, “immediately rushed to Mr. Cruz’s defense.” “Like the battle against Joe McCarthy in its second and decisive phase (1953-4),” I wrote at the time, “the battle against Cruz, Donald Trump and their ilk will take place primarily within the Republican Party.” It did—and Trump and Cruz’s allies won. The Republicans have taken note, and even John McCain declined to criticize McConnell’s move against Warren, much less to vote against it.
The ferocity of the Republicans threatens to destroy the political and economic achievements of the last 80 years, but history suggests that it may also destroy them. Both the French Jacobins in 1793-4 and the Russian revolutionaries after 1917 eventually turned against themselves in a frenzy to enforce ideological purity. Something similar may happen when the Republicans realize they do not have the votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act, that they cannot possibly justify the enormous expense of a new wall on the Mexican border, and that immigrants, legal and illegal, are too deeply entrenched in the American economy to expel.
Senator Warren, meanwhile, has stepped into the role of another Massachusetts Senator, Charles Sumner, who was beaten nearly to death at his Senate desk in 1856 by a Congressman, Preston Brooks, after violently attacking Brooks’s uncle, another Senator, Andrew Butler. Sumner recovered from his injuries and lived to see the South defeated in the Civil War and the Reconstruction amendments added to the Constitution. Warren’s re-election has suddenly become more assured, and she will be emboldened, not intimidated, by what has happened. It remains, alas, for the Republican Party to recover both their common sense and their honor, and I hope the day will not be too far off when they do.