“Mr. Sessions has used the awesome powers of his office in a shabby attempt to intimidate and frighten elderly black voters. For this reprehensible conduct, he should not be rewarded with a federal judgeship.”
– Coretta Scott King, 1986 letter and written testimony to Senate Judiciary Committee
Desecrators of our national monuments do their most despicable deeds at night. And early Tuesday evening, a dour-faced perpetrator turtle-walked quietly but confidently to his predetermined position and launched an attack on the heart, soul and core principles of our capital’s monument to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
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And he got away with it — perhaps because this perp was none other than Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Wielding a rarely, if ever, used 114-year-old parliamentary weapon known as Rule 19 (it says a senator must not “impute” any unbecoming conduct or motive to another senator), the GOP leader set out to stifle Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who always seems to find a way of driving McConnell to distraction as she scores her points.
As the Senate was debating the nomination of Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., to be President Donald Trump’s attorney general, Warren was speaking. She was somberly reading a powerful civil rights plea written more than 30 years earlier by Coretta Scott King, widow of the iconic civil rights leader.
“ … The irony of Mr. Sessions’ nomination is that, if confirmed, he will be given life tenure for doing with a federal prosecution what the local sheriffs accomplished twenty years ago with clubs and cattle prods.”
Back in 1986, Mrs. King was warning senators that if they confirmed Sessions, then the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Alabama, as a federal judge it would decimate the dreams of her husband, who had been assassinated 18 years earlier. The Senate listened and rejected Sessions’ judicial nomination.
“ … The actions taken by Mr. Sessions in regard to the 1984 voting fraud prosecutions represent just one more technique used to intimidate Black voters and thus deny them this most precious franchise. The investigations into the absentee voting process were conducted only in the Black Belt counties where blacks had finally achieved political power in the local government.”
On Tuesday evening, Warren, D-Mass., was warning her colleagues that to confirm Sessions as attorney general could still be every bit as destructive as before.
“Whites had been using the absentee process to their advantage for years, without incident. Then, when Blacks realizing its strength, began to use it with success, criminal investigations were begun.”
Enter the Senate’s top Republican. McConnell was suddenly all about upholding Senate decorum and the letter of the law — as long as it was his law and not Mrs. King’s letter or Warren’s message. Suddenly McConnell was invoking Rule 19 and demanding she be rebuked and silenced. The full Senate voted along party lines to rebuke Warren and bar her from further participation in the debate on Sessions’ worthiness to become attorney general.
Consistency is not a McConnell virtue. Not when it comes to holding hearings for a president’s Supreme Court nominees — and especially not when it comes to Senate chamber decorum. For example, in 2015, on the Senate floor, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, accused another senator of telling “a simple lie.” Yet no one invoked Rule 19. Could it be that there’s something about Elizabeth? Something that drives McConnell to extremes?
On Wednesday morning and midday, with Warren officially rebuked and barred from debating the issue further, three other Senate Democrats — New Mexico’s Tom Udall, Ohio’s Sherrod Brown and Vermont’s Bernie Sanders — read Mrs. King’s entire 1986 letter on the Senate floor. No one mentioned Rule 19. McConnell watched silently.
“… Based on his record, I believe his confirmation would have a devastating effect on not only the judicial system in Alabama, but also on the progress we have made everywhere toward fulfilling my husband’s dream.”
And Wednesday evening, the Senate voted to confirm Jeff Sessions as President Trump’s new attorney general. In one sense, McConnell may figure he won. But in the process, he may have made his most nettlesome critic, Warren, the shiniest star in the opposition’s dimmed galaxy.
Martin Schram, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, is a veteran Washington journalist, author and TV documentary executive.