OPED: Warren didn't violate Senate rules

Michael McGough
Tribune News Service

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will rue the day he moved to shush Sen. Elizabeth Warren for trying to read a 30-year-old letter from Coretta Scott King critical of Sen. Jeff Sessions, President Trump's nominee for attorney general.

Holding a transcript of her speech in the Senate Chamber, Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts reacts to being rebuked by the Senate leadership and accused of impugning a fellow senator, Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., the attorney general nominee, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2017. Warren was barred from saying anything more on the Senate floor about Sessions after she quoted from an old letter from Martin Luther King Jr.'s widow about Sessions. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

In the letter, the wife of the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had opposed Sessions' failed bid for a federal judgeship. As a U.S. attorney, King wrote, Sessions had "used the awesome powers of his office in a shabby attempt to intimidate and frighten black voters."

Within hours of the Republican majority's silencing of Warren for violating a Senate rule against impugning the motives of a fellow senator, Warren supporters had made a meme of McConnell's justification for shutting her up: "She was warned; she was given an explanation. Nevertheless she persisted."

But put aside the partisan and gender optics of the gagging of Warren and the fact that the King letter was later read without incident by several male senators.

Rule XIX, the rule designed to keep senators from attacking one another, was absurdly misapplied in this situation.

The rule states: "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 original intent of the rule, if you will, was to preserve comity and focus the attention senators on substance rather than ad hominem arguments. But Warren was commenting on Sessions not as a colleague but as the nominee to a position in the executive branch; his character (as perceived by Mrs. King) was central to her argument.

McConnell should have let this slide.

— Michael McGough is the senior editorial writer for the Los Angeles Times.