Elizabeth Warren was shut down on the Senate floor while she gave a speech on Tuesday night. Senate Republicans used a Rule 19 to stop Senator Warren from criticizing Sen. Jeff Sessions, who at the time was being confirmed for attorney general. Her speech consisted of a letter by Martin Luther King’s widow, Corretta Scott King, as well as former Senator Edward Kennedy, who wrote against Senator Sessions appointment to a federal judgeship in 1986.
Senator Warren was clearly in violation of the rule 19 that 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.
She was clearly implying that Senator Sessions was a racist and continued to do so even after she had been warned not to impugn Sessions character. This led to Sen. McConnell to invoke the rule. A clearly surprised Senator Warren was then barred from debating further on the confirmation of Sen. Sessions.
The use of the rule 19 is something that has been used sparingly since its inception in the early 1900’s and rightfully so. In today’s hostile political environment Senators often do imply or even outright attack another Senators character or motives, the most famous in recent times being Senator Ted Cruz called Sen. McConnell an outright liar during debate. Why wasn’t the rule used then? To so callously shut down a Senator, and a female one on top of that, feeds right into the perceptions that Republicans do not respect women. This move will only further motivate an already engaged and passionate liberal base and gives credit to a popular Senator who frequently railed against Republicans on social issues.
Even though the use of rule 19 looked bad in this instance, maybe the real motivation behind the use of the rule is to show the Senate that this rule can be used to circumvent a filibuster of Supreme Court nominee Gorsuch, or another nominee down the road. Perhaps, this was a practice run to see how it would be received.
Rule XIX of the Standing Rules of the Senate plainly states that on any given question, a senator may speak only twice on the same legislative day. This clause is known in Senate parlance as the two-speech rule. No senator may speak more than two times on the same matter on the same legislative day…In simple terms, it means that once each senator has spoken twice on a matter, debate on that matter is concluded no matter what. It means that a final up-or-down vote is guaranteed. It does not preclude the Senate from invoking cloture before all senators have spoken twice, nor does it preclude the Senate from proceeding to a final vote in the absence of continued debate. Unlike the nuclear option, which kills debate instantly at the whim of the majority, enforcement of the two-speech rule effectively sets a limit on debate.
So once all Senators have had their say, they are required to have an up or down vote. This prevents a filibuster and it allows Senate Republicans to not have to use the nuclear option which some seem hesitant to do. It also allows Sen. McConnell to not be faced with harsh criticism of rewriting senate rules and we all know he doesn’t like to ruffle feathers. Perhaps that is why he is going to such lengths to roll this out.