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#AskCokie: Listeners Ask About Rule 19 That Silenced Sen. Warren


And let's zoom in on one moment on Capitol Hill last week. The Senate voted to silence Massachusetts Democrat Elizabeth Warren. She was objecting to the nomination of fellow Senator Jeff Sessions for attorney general by reading a letter from Coretta Scott King, when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell objected to how Warren was objecting.


ELIZABETH WARREN: (Reading) Mothers, daughters, sisters, fathers, sons and brothers...

MITCH MCCONNELL: Mr. President...

WARREN: ...They are...

MCCONNELL: The senator has impugned the motives and conduct of our colleague from Alabama, as warned by the chair. I called the senator to order under the provision to Rule 19.

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

GREENE: Senator McConnell there was using Rule 19 to silence Warren, and that left some of you, our listeners, with questions.

LESLEY ALEXANDER: My name is Lesley Alexander (ph), and I am from Lakeland, Fla. Please explain the obscure Senate rule that was used to effectively prevent Elizabeth Warren from giving testimony on the character and suitability of nominee for attorney general Jeff Sessions.

GREENE: And so we put that question to NPR commentator and columnist Cokie Roberts, who is here for our regular segment Ask Cokie.


Well, the rule called Rule 19 was enacted more than a century ago when two senators got into a fist fight...

GREENE: A fist fight?

ROBERTS: ...On the floor - yes. And they were both censured by the Senate. And the rule states, quote, "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 of the Senate."

Pretty broad. But...

GREENE: Yeah. So don't punch a fellow senator or speak badly about a fellow senator.

ROBERTS: (Laughter) Right.

GREENE: All that's included.

ROBERTS: But, you know, the truth is that senators have been saying awful things about each other for a very long time and the rule has not been invoked. And so, McConnell's decision to use it here has caused a lot of upset among Democrats, especially Democratic women.

GREENE: Well, let's listen to another listener here who was wondering, you know, why exactly this happened and why now.

LAUREN LICHON: My name is Lauren Lichon (ph). I'm from Seattle, Wash. Why aren't fellow senators allowed to criticize one another, especially during confirmation hearings for an attorney general? Don't you think it's actually healthy to question and bring things up from his past?

GREENE: And this speaks to the sort of unique case here, Cokie, because it's a...


GREENE: ...Fellow senator, Sessions, but actually someone who President Trump has nominated so a little different.

ROBERTS: Right. Look, as I said, they do criticize one another, usually by talking - first by saying my esteemed colleague. And of course, Senator McConnell himself was called a liar not too long ago by Senator Ted Cruz, and nobody invoked this rule. So what's going on here is politics.

But McConnell is learning that he's living in a new world. His statement that Warren had been warned but, quote, "nevertheless, she persisted" is now on T-shirts and mugs. And women are signing up for workshops to learn how to run for office all over the country. And they're paying money to do it because so many women are now trying to get politically active. And when things happen in the news, more of them sign up. So President Obama's farewell address got a lot of women interested, then the Women's March and now Elizabeth Warren's being shut down in the Senate.

So an obscure Senate rule can have an unexpected impact.

GREENE: You know, Cokie, it's interesting because this feels partisan. There are a lot of Republicans who are actually criticizing Warren, saying she's in the minority - she was just figuring out some way to get attention and hold up this nomination. But you're describing that this could be a moment when women, I presume both Republicans and Democrats, might be signing up to get involved in politics. And women of all political stripes must like that.

ROBERTS: That's true. Republican women don't like to be told to sit down and shut up any more than Democratic women do. And they're not necessarily saying this is something partisan. They want to get involved.

GREENE: All right. Cokie Roberts, thanks as always.

ROBERTS: OK. Good to be with you.

GREENE: That is commentator and columnist Cokie Roberts. She joins us on Wednesdays to answer your questions about how Washington and politics work. So tweet us at MORNING EDITION with the hashtag #AskCokie. Or you can email your questions to askcokie@npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.