The Sounds of Silence: Warren speech cut-off captures rising Senate tensions

It’s all over but the shouting when it comes to the Senate confirming Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., as attorney general.

But the talking came to an abrupt end for Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., Tuesday night when she expressed opposition to Sessions’ nomination on the Senate floor.

The Senate prides itself on unlimited debate. But Warren found her way into an ignominious congressional pantheon Tuesday. Fellow senators voted to silence Warren after Republicans determined she broke Senate decorum and attacked Sessions’ integrity.

Warren’s punishment marks the first time the Senate’s officially hushed one of its members in decades.

A senator sans debating privileges is like Batman without Robin. Bacon without eggs. President Trump without Twitter.

Naturally, it’s ironic that an all-night Senate talkathon on Sessions’ nomination could somehow force senators to muzzle one of its own.

Here’s what happened:

Warren delivered a lengthy speech opposing the confirmation of her Alabama colleague. She read a letter authored in 1986 by Coretta Scott King, the widow of Martin Luther King, who was against President Reagan’s nomination of Sessions to the federal bench. The late Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., entered King’s letter into the record more than three decades ago. The Reagan administration later withdrew Sessions’ nomination.

Coretta Scott King argued that Sessions “used the awesome power of his office to chill the free exercise of the vote by black citizens.” Warren then quoted Kennedy who described Sessions as “disgraceful.”

Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., presided over the Senate when Warren cited King and Kennedy. Daines momentarily halted Warren.

“It is a violation of Rule XIX of the Standing Rules of the Senate to impute another senator, or senator’s conduct or motive unbecoming a senator,” chastened Daines.

Warren asserted she wasn’t name-calling. She simply quoted what King wrote and Kennedy said more than 30 years ago – words long ago recorded in the Senate archives.

About 25 minutes later, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., came to the floor and interrupted Warren.

“The senator has impugned the motives and conduct of our colleague from Alabama,” said McConnell. He argued that Warren violated Rule XIX and should lose her speaking privileges.

From his position on the dais, Daines agreed and looked at Warren.

“The senator will take her seat,” the Montana Republican sternly instructed his colleague.

Rule XIX says if a senator should “in the opinion of the Presiding Officer transgress the rules” the senator must “take his seat.” Warren wasn’t having it. She appealed Daines’ ruling. She waved her arms, fidgeted and nervously paced around her desk at the rear of the Senate chamber.

“I’m surprised that the words of Coretta Scott King are not suitable for debate in the United States Senate,” protested Warren.

In a remarkable scene, the Senate then voted 49-43 to affirm McConnell’s contention and suspended Warren’s speaking privileges until the Senate votes on Sessions’ nomination.

The last time the Senate actually docked a senator in this way was Feb. 1, 1951, when Sen. William Benton, D-Conn., was prohibited from speaking on the floor. The Senate on Sept. 22, 1950, also barred Sen. Estes Kefauver, D-Tenn., from speaking on the floor after he used inappropriate language.

Further, the late Sen. John Heinz, R-Pa., claimed that then-Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, breached Senate protocol with caustic remarks in 1988. But Gramm withdrew the language in question.

The House last revoked a member’s speaking privileges in January 1995. The House disciplined then-Rep. Bob Dornan, R-Calif., for accusing President Clinton of “giving aid and comfort to the enemy” during Vietnam. Democrats were willing to let Dornan resume speaking if he apologized to the House. But Dornan wasn’t having any of it.

“Hell no! Hell no!” spat Dornan.

Taking over the chair from Daines, Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., ruled on a question from Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., that even if a senator utters “the truth” about a colleague, it’s still out of order if it attacks their integrity.

Whitehouse was incredulous, wondering aloud how the Senate was to conduct its “advice and consent” mandate over nominees.

“Are we to blind ourselves?” asked Whitehouse. “Discuss it privately in the cloakroom?”

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., lamented that things are so tense, it’s a challenge to have a civil debate anywhere. He invoked images of foreign parliaments where rowdy legislators “throw chairs” and other furniture when a brouhaha breaks out.

“I know that tonight was a made-for-TV moment,” said Rubio about the Warren imbroglio.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., accused McConnell of “escalating partisanship” by sanctioning Warren. The New York Democrat said the entire scene was “totally unnecessary.”

A few minutes later, McConnell and Schumer huddled by themselves without staff in an intense conversation on the Republican side of the chamber.

“I think we ought to be ashamed,” lectured Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. “This place is going to devolve into nothing but a jungle.”

The Senate fracas may have been inevitable. Senators from both sides have scrapped for days as Democrats use parliamentary delays to stall most of President Trump’s cabinet picks.

As a result, McConnell called an extraordinary vote series at 6:30 a.m. ET Friday to set up Tuesday’s vote to confirm Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. Vice President Mike Pence had to break the tie to confirm DeVos. That marked the first time a vice president ever cast the deciding ballot to confirm a Cabinet official. Senate Democrats kept the Senate in session all night Monday and did the same Tuesday. The tactic is likely to prompt an early Friday morning vote to confirm Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., as Health and Human Services secretary. Following that, expect a Saturday morning confirmation vote for Treasury Secretary nominee Steven Mnuchin.

Nerves in the Senate are frayed. Tempers are short. And the Senate has days of discord ahead.

“We may take the Sabbath off and come back on Monday,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas.

Perhaps a necessary day of silence – for all senators.

Capitol Attitude is a weekly column written by members of the Fox News Capitol Hill team. Their articles take you inside the halls of Congress, and cover the spectrum of policy issues being introduced, debated and voted on there.