The turbulent national debate over race, gender and free speech consumed the normally staid Senate on Wednesday after the GOP majority voted to silence Sen. Elizabeth Warren, abruptly elevating her celebrity status at a moment when liberals are hungry for a leader to take on Donald Trump.
The highly unusual rebuke of the Massachusetts Democrat came as the Senate weighed President Trump's choice for attorney general, GOP Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, who secured confirmation on a nearly party-line vote Wednesday evening. It also gave frustrated Democrats a rallying cry weeks into a presidency that is dividing the country like few before.
"I certainly hope that this anti-free-speech attitude is not traveling down Pennsylvania Avenue to our great chamber," Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York warned darkly as Democrats jumped at an opening to link the GOP's conduct to that of Trump himself. "This is not what America is about — silencing speech, especially in this chamber."
Republicans argued they were just trying to enforce necessary rules of decorum in a Senate that is a last bulwark of civil debate in an angry nation.
"I hope that maybe we've all been chastened a little bit," chided the No. 2 Senate Republican, John Cornyn of Texas. "We're at a pretty challenging time in our nation's history when many people who were surprised and disappointed at the last election are unwilling to accept the results. ... I only hope that after the passage of some time they will return to their senses."
But the debate immediately took on overtones of race and gender. Warren was rebuked as she was reading a letter by Martin Luther King Jr's widow, Coretta Scott King, opposing Sessions' ultimately unsuccessful nomination to a federal judgeship in 1986. Subsequently several male Democratic senators stood up and read from the same letter but without drawing objections, leading Democratic activists to proclaim that Senate Republicans were interested only in silencing a woman.
The moment inspired a Twitter hashtag, #LetLizSpeak, and clips from C-SPAN2 went viral. "By silencing Elizabeth Warren, the GOP gave women around the world a rallying cry," fellow Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris of California said over Twitter.
Warren was chastised under a little-used Senate regulation, Rule 19, which bars any senator from impugning the motives of any other or imputing "any conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming of a senator." The Senate historian's office could not immediately say when the rule was last invoked, but Democrats accused Republicans of selectively enforcing it. They noted the GOP did not apply it when, for example, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas accused Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of lying in relation to a dispute over the Export-Import Bank two years ago.
This time, Warren drew a warning from the presiding officer as she quoted Tuesday evening from a letter written by the late Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts that referred to Sessions as "a disgrace." She continued with her speech, and began quoting from Coretta Scott King's letter and an accompanying statement that accused Sessions, a federal prosecutor at the time, of using the power of his office to "chill the free exercise of the vote by black citizens."
Democrats are portraying Sessions as a threat to civil rights, voting rights and immigration; Republicans have defended Trump's choice to be the top law enforcement officer as a man of integrity who will be an independent voice in the new administration.
McConnell stood and invoked Rule 19, saying that Warren has "impugned the motives and conduct of our colleague from Alabama" in quoting the words from Mrs. King.
Warren, meanwhile, seen as a possible presidential candidate in 2020 along with a handful of other Senate colleagues, was given an even bigger platform to assail Sessions, the GOP and Trump. By midafternoon Wednesday she had raised more than $286,000 for her re-election campaign from more than 10,500 MoveOn members alone, the liberal group said.
"This is about Coretta Scott King's letter. And that's all this is about," Warren said after finishing more than an hour's worth of television interviews in the ornate rotunda of a Senate office building. "And Mitch McConnell didn't want me to read that letter. He stopped me. And so I went out and read the letter anyway and posted it on a live feed."
Democrats challenged McConnell's ruling, but the GOP majority voted to uphold it, barring Warren from speaking on the floor throughout the remainder of the debate over Sessions.
"She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted," McConnell said in words that sparked still more liberal outrage and Twitter hashtags. Hillary Clinton referenced McConnell's comment about Warren persisting, adding in a Tweet: "So must we all."
In the aftermath Democrats expressed outrage that Warren had been silenced while quoting from the words of a civil rights hero, as a party that's struggled over the best way to challenge Trump found something all could agree on.