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GOP Blocks Sen. Elizabeth Warren From Jeff Sessions Debate


The Senate confirmed Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions as attorney general this evening. But as debate went on over the course of the day, one of his fellow senators was not allowed to speak. Elizabeth Warren was effectively censured by Senate Republicans last night for violating an old rule that bars lawmakers from impugning each other's character. But as NPR's Scott Detrow reports from the Capitol, the move may have backfired.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: When Elizabeth Warren was sidelined in the Senate, she went right to the airwaves.


ELIZABETH WARREN: I'm not allowed to speak so long as the topic is Senator Jeff Sessions.


WARREN: I've been red-carded on Senator Sessions.

DETROW: That's Warren speaking last night to MSNBC's Rachel Maddow. Let's take a few steps back here. On Tuesday night, Warren stood on the Senate floor and read from a letter Coretta Scott King had sent to the Senate in 1986. That's when Jeff Sessions was nominated for a federal judgeship. King alleged that as a U.S. attorney, Sessions had, quote, "attempted to intimidate and frighten elderly black voters." And reading that, said Republicans like Idaho's Jim Risch, broke rule 19, a Senate regulation that was pretty obscure until today.


JIM RISCH: We have rules around here, and the rules are very clear that you don't impugn another senator. Now, you can't do that in your words, and you can't do it with writings.

DETROW: Warren acted genuinely perplexed.


WARREN: Mr. President, I am surprised that the words of Coretta Scott King are not suitable for debate in the United States Senate.

DETROW: Still, Warren was voted down along party lines and formally silenced. Except she wasn't silenced at all. There was that immediate MSNBC interview and then Facebook and Twitter posts viewed and shared millions of times. Warren was all over the news today, including an interview with Yahoo's Katie Couric.


WARREN: I went outside. I read the letter. I posted it on Facebook. I want everybody in America to read this letter.

DETROW: Suddenly, King's decades-old letter about Jeff Sessions' track record is posted on site after site. And over and over again today, other Democrats defiantly read King's letter on the Senate floor.


SHERROD BROWN: (Reading) Mr. Sessions has used the awesome powers of his office in a shabby attempt to intimidate and frighten elderly black voters.


TOM UDALL: (Reading) Voters. For this reprehensible conduct, he should not be rewarded with a federal judgeship.

DETROW: And at a time when the progressive base is getting more and more engaged, it may have found itself a new rallying cry from the words of Majority Leader Mitch McConnell explaining why Republicans were censuring Warren.


MITCH MCCONNELL: She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.

DETROW: And just like that, nevertheless she persisted was the new nasty woman. People tweeted McConnell's quote alongside pictures of Rosa Parks, Malala Yousafzai and others. Even Hillary Clinton got in on the act. Of course, the dust-up comes at a time when Democrats have been pretty demoralized. They had rallied public opinion against Betsy DeVos' education secretary nomination, setting records for calls to senators, but they still lost as vice president Mike Pence broke a tie Senate vote. Warren told Yahoo that's going to keep happening.


WARREN: We have a lot less tools, and we're going to lose a lot of the time. I get that. We don't have the votes.

DETROW: What she and other Democrats hope, though, is that their base stays engaged like it's been during the first month of the Trump presidency. Trump will provide the party plenty of fodder to stir that up. And this week, Senate Republicans did, too. Scott Detrow, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.
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