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Democrats pick up where Elizabeth Warren left off, read King’s letter without rebuke

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When Sen. Elizabeth Warren was prevented from reading Coretta Scott King’s 1986 letter about Jeff Sessions, her fellow Democrats picked up where she left off, because #ShePersisted.
USA TODAY

WASHINGTON — Democratic senators Wednesday continued their repudiation of Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions as President Trump’s nominee as attorney general, using a marathon session to offer sharp rebukes of a former Senate colleague of more than two decades.

The debate, a prelude to a vote in which Sessions is expected to confirmed as the nation’s chief law enforcement officer, built on an extraordinary confrontation Tuesday night in which Republican leaders cited arcane Senate debate rules to silence Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.

Warren was in the midst of reading from a 1986 letter from Coretta Scott King, the widow of civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr., who opposed then-U.S. attorney Sessions’ nomination for a federal judgeship.

“Anyone who has used the power of his office as United States attorney to intimidate and chill the free exercise of the ballot by citizens should not be elevated to our courts,” Warren said, reading from the letter in which King condemned Sessions’ role in a controversial voting fraud prosecution of three black civil rights activists in Alabama.

The three activists were acquitted in the 1985 case known as the “Marion 3.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., interjected, saying that Warren violated Senate rules for “impugning the motives” of Sessions, and the Senate later voted to support McConnell’s contention.

“I am surprised that the words of Coretta Scott King are not suitable for debate in the United States Senate,” Warren said, before the ruling.

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The incident only served to energize a debate that continued into Wednesday afternoon  when Democrats paraded to the Senate podium to offer their support for Warren and question Sessions’ fitness to lead the Justice Department.

Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-La., slammed the ruling as an effort to “silence Coretta Scott King from the grave.”

“Mrs. King’s characterization of then U.S. Attorney Sessions was accurate in 1986 and it is accurate now,” Richmond said in a statement.

Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., took up Warren’s cause and continued reading from King’s scathing letter. Udall’s remarks were not challenged by Republicans, nor were the statements of Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, who called the Senate shutdown of Warren’s criticism a “gag rule.”

Hirono also called into question Sessions’ independence from the president, who Sessions strongly supported during the contentious primary and general election campaigns.

“I will vote against Jeff Sessions,” Hirono said. “I am seriously concerned about Jeff Sessions’ willingness to say no to the president when he needs to.”

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who waged an unsuccessful campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, said silencing Warren only underscored the gravity of the debate.

“This is the United States of America,” Sanders told the chamber Wednesday. “People expect a vigorous debate on the important issues facing this country. The idea that a letter, a statement by Coretta Scott King could not be spoken about on the floor of the U.S. Senate, is incomprehensible.”

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer called the action against Warren a moment “when the Senate went in a bad direction.”

“My friend from Massachusetts was following the letter and spirit of debate,” Schumer said. “It was the most selective enforcement of a rarely-used (rule) to silence her.”

Debate is the only weapon Democrats have in their fight against Sessions, as Republicans hold the majority in the Senate and have the votes to confirm the Alabama nominee.

Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, urged that Sessions’ confirmation was critical to providing stability to the Trump administration’s national security team and urged quick action.

“What I find particularly egregious is the fact that Democrats have slowed down and slow-walked and obstructed the nomination or confirmation of one of the president’s national security cabinet members, and that would be Sen. Jeff Sessions, his attorney general,” Cornyn said.

“The fact that they’ve drug this out and made it impossible for the Department of Justice, an important part of our national security team, to remain without a leader is completely inexcusable,” the senator went on. “The last thing I would say is they know how this story ends. They know we’re going to be successful. So stunts like staying up all night and making speeches, I’m not sure who they’re trying to impress other than their dysfunctional base.”

Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, said the wave of Democratic criticism had “twisted” the nominee’s record.

And he defended the move to cut off Warren, saying that the Senate debate rule has “been in place for decades.”

“You don’t need to be a member of the Harvard Law Review to know that the rule was violated,” he said.

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