Floor Fights Have Consequences
by John Lawrence
Observers may come to consider Sen. Mitch McConnell’s decision to invoke Senate rules to silence Sen. Elizabeth Warren on Tuesday night as a misogynistic blunder that skilled politicians should instinctively avoid making. But there may have been more behind McConnell’s unusual maneuver to force the Massachusetts senator to relinquish the floor and sit down than is immediately apparent, and there may be multiple unforeseen consequences in the decisions of both senators.
Warren was reprimanded for supposedly violating one of those inviolable Senate rules – Number XIX – that admonishes members of “the greatest deliberative body in the world” not to impugn their colleagues. During her diatribe against the nomination of Sen. Jeff Sessions for Attorney General, Warren read a 1986 letter from Coretta Scott King in opposition to Sessions’ nomination to the federal bench. Sessions’ record as the longtime U.S Attorney for the Southern District of Alabama had displayed a consistent tendency, according to Mrs. King, to “chill the free exercise of the vote by black citizens,” focusing on the kinds of “politically motivated voting fraud investigations” now favored by Donald Trump. Sessions allegedly had used his official powers to do “what local sheriffs accomplished twenty years ago with clubs and cattle prods.” There were, Mrs. King intoned, “serious questions about his commitment to the protections of the voting rights of all citizens.” These were the kind of concerns that prevented Sessions from being confirmed for the judgeship.
Supporters assert that Sessions, elected to the Senate ten years later, is a changed man, and he may well be. The issue, however, is whether Sen. Warren should have been silenced for sharing with her fellow senators a 32-year old letter already in the public record whose content might upset Sessions. The merits of the ruling against Warren are dubious: she was not voicing her own opinion but quoting a highly respected source with solid knowledge of Session’s record as a public official in Alabama. Other could, and have, made the case that Sessions is an ardent defender of black Americans, but Warren is under no obligation to do so.
Notwithstanding Senate rules, the optics of McConnell and other male senators ordering Warren to “take her seat” and remain silent were nothing short of stupefying. An innumerable number of worse statements about other senators have been uttered on the Senate’s hallowed floor without triggering such a punitive response. Indeed, when Sen. Tom Udall (NM) admirably took up Warren’s cause and read the King letter, no Republican gaveled him silent.
Many observers immediately concluded that what occurred on the floor was a mini-drama related to including Warren’s 2018 re-election race or even the 2020 presidential campaign. Warren now has the material for her first commercial, thanks to McConnell’s blustering; indeed, she read the entire King letter into YouTube, which recorded millions of viewers (and likely, tens of thousands of contributors without spending a thin dime on fundraising). Meanwhile, McConnell stood up for Trump’s nominee and for a fellow Republican senator under assault, which burnishes his role as GOP Leader. Whether there are lasting consequences to the dust-up remain hard to predict.
Two years before Mrs. King penned her letter criticizing Sessions, an eerily similar to the McConnell-Warren spat broke out on the House floor resulting in the historic rebuke to a sitting Speaker and the elevation of hard-driving Republicans who already could envision one of their own holding the House gavel.
On May 15, 1984, Speaker Tip O’Neill, like Warren a Massachusetts legislator, was infuriated by the innuendos of treason leveled against Democratic House Members by the likes of Georgia Rep. Newt Gingrich, a perennial gadfly and irritating junior backbencher. Republicans had insinuated that their liberal colleagues were conniving with Nicaragua’s Sandinista rebels to undermine President Reagan’s efforts to displace the leftist government, and they used after hours floor speeches to dare Democrats to respond to their wild accusations. Since the House had completed its legislative business and the floor was empty, Gingrich and others knew full well no Democrats could respond, and used the opportunity to construct a contrived scene in which it appeared Democrats refused to respond to the hyperbolic accusations.
O’Neill, who had inveighed against televising the House floor for fear of just such theatrical abuses (he actually warned the cameras would catch Members “picking their nose or scratching their ass”) had enough. Taking to the floor, the Speaker condemned the Republicans’ incendiary, late-night attacks. “You deliberately stood in that well before an empty House and challenged these people and you challenged their Americanism,” thundered O’Neill, calling the tactic ”the lowest thing” he had ever seen in 32 years of decades of House service. He admitted he harbored ”much harsher thoughts” about the tactics and the language being directed against his Caucus colleagues.
Affront to the Speaker’s statements was taken by the Republican Whip, Trent Lott of Mississippi, who complained that ”a lot of people feel their integrity and motives have been impugned.” Lott asked that the Speaker’s words be “taken down,” a House procedure to expunge offensive language from the Congressional Record. Under the rules, the acting Speaker, an anguished Joe Moakley of Massachusetts, was compelled to side with Lott, and O’Neill was rebuked and silenced for the remainder of the day.
Gingrich famously crowed, “I am a famous person!” and a delighted Lott declared “our point has been made.” Although a press account noted, “leaders from both parties say they are getting tired of Mr. Gingrich and his allies, who openly prefer public clashes to private compromises,” the incident helped elevate the conservative activists. By securing a ruling that punished the Speaker, for the first time in history, they demonstrated their savvy knowledge of floor procedure, the kind of symbolic victory that earns admiration among your supporters. Even many moderate Republicans increasingly became enamored of the obnoxious Gingrich, who seemed more determined to oust O’Neill and the Democrats than the less vindictive GOP Leader, Bob Michel, who liked to travel and sing with O’Neill.
In the history of the rise in a polarized electorate, a more partisan atmosphere within the Congress, the ideological realignment of the parties, and the utilization of media to appeal to the hard-core base, the O’Neill-Lott confrontation has a special significance and symbolism. Time will tell if historians will look back on the Warren-McConnell clash as an important political drama, or if it is simply one more piece of evidence that the hallowed decorum and procedures of the Senate are heading for the proverbial dustbin.