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Here’s the History Behind the Senate Rule Invoked to Shut Down Elizabeth Warren

Elizabeth Warren
Elizabeth Warren / AP
• February 8, 2017 12:08 pm

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On Tuesday night, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) invoked a rare, obscure Senate rule to stop Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D., Mass.) during a speech on the Senate floor in which she attacked colleague Sen. Jeff Sessions (R., Ala.).

Sessions is President Trump's pick for attorney general, and the Senate was debating the Alabama lawmaker's nomination when the incident occurred.

Warren delivered a diatribe against Sessions, arguing he is not fit to head the Justice Department because he will not stand up to Trump's "campaign of bigotry."

"He made derogatory and racist comments that should have no place in our justice system," Warren said. "To put Sen. Sessions in charge of the Department of Justice is an insult to African Americans."

She then read aloud a 1986 letter from the late Sen. Edward Kennedy in which he called Sessions a "disgrace to the Justice Department" and part of a 1986 letter from the late Coretta Scott King, a civil rights activist and wife of Martin Luther King Jr. The King letter said Sessions "lacks the temperament, fairness, and judgment to be a federal judge," and that he pursued a "shabby" voter fraud case against African American activists when he was a prosecutor.

Minutes later, McConnell invoked Rule 19 to stop Warren's speech, which 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."

Senate Republicans viewed Warren's reading of the King letter, which suggested that Sessions had exhibited racial bias, as breaking Senate decorum and referenced Rule 19 to prevent her from continuing her speech.

Rule 19 is little known but has an intriguing history that is more than a century old.

The story of Rule 19 began in February 1902 with an exchange between Sens. Benjamin Tillman and John McLaurin, both Democrats from South Carolina. Their dispute escalated and broke out onto the Senate floor, the Washington Post reported in an in-depth explainer on the Senate rule.

Furious that McLaurin was colluding with the other side of the aisle, Tillman used a Feb. 22, 1902, speech on the Senate floor to harangue the younger senator. Gesturing toward McLaurin's empty chair, Tillman accused his counterpart of treachery and corruption, saying he had succumbed to "improper influences," according to a Senate history of the dispute.

When McLaurin caught wind of Tillman's remarks, he rushed into the chamber and shouted that Tillman was telling a "willful, malicious, and deliberate lie."

A fistfight erupted. As Senate historians recounted, "The 54-year-old Tillman jumped from his place and physically attacked McLaurin, who was 41, with a series of stinging blows. Efforts to separate the two combatants resulted in misdirected punches landing on other members."

After the fistfight occurred and order was restored to the Senate, lawmakers in the chamber voted to censure both men for their behavior. The incident led the Senate to update its rules for floor debates, and thus, Rule 19 was adopted–specifically sections 2 and 3, according to the Post.

The rule has been raised infrequently since its adoption in 1902.

One instance flagged by Bloomberg's Greg Giroux occurred in 1979, when Sen. Lowell Weicker (R., Conn.) called Sen. John Heinz (R., Pa.) "an idiot" and "devious" in a debate on the Senate floor. Heinz reportedly stormed to the front of the room with a rule book and showed him Rule 19. Majority Leader Robert Byrd (D., W.Va.) defused the situation and asked them to shake hands. Other examples are hard to come by.

The invocation of Rule 19 against Warren means that she will be unable to speak for the rest of the floor debate on Sessions' confirmation. A vote on his nomination is expected to be held Wednesday.