The Rules That Stopped Elizabeth Warren Are Waiting for Donald Trump, Too

Senate norms have never been more important in our democracy

Under Senate rules, President Donald Trump’s proposals will have to get through the chamber based on the merits of his policies, not the volume of his arguments, Murphy writes. Senators are seen here at the president’s inauguration last month. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Under Senate rules, President Donald Trump’s proposals will have to get through the chamber based on the merits of his policies, not the volume of his arguments, Murphy writes. Senators are seen here at the president’s inauguration last month. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted February 10, 2017 at 3:26pm

Rule 19 had its close-up this week, didn’t it? To be specific, Section 3 of Rule 19, did, when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell informed Sen. Elizabeth Warren that she had “impugned the motives and conduct” of her fellow senator, Jeff Sessions, when she read a letter that Coretta Scott King had written about him many years ago.

When Warren was told, “The senator shall take her seat,” she took the Coretta Scott King letter, marched a few feet off the Senate floor, and took a different seat in front of a Facebook Live feed that went out to millions. The standoff launched a battle cry for any woman who has ever felt marginalized, belittled or silenced — which, by the way, is nearly all of us. A thousand hashtags bloomed. #SheWasWarned #ShePersisted #LetLizSpeak. You get the picture.

But the moment also led people to ask how and why Warren, a legitimately elected U.S. senator, could be tossed from a Senate debate for doing something that seemed so inoffensive compared to the rhetoric of today’s politics. President Donald Trump can call former prisoner of war Sen. John McCain a compulsive loser but Warren can’t read a letter from Coretta Scott King? It made not just McConnell, but the entire U.S. Senate and its rules, seem outdated and sexist. The only things missing were powdered wigs and a duel at 10 paces. But the reality is that the Senate rules are more relevant now than they have ever been.

It’s important to first note that the rules didn’t prevent Warren from having her voice heard. Instead, she used the Senate rules to her favor, as any skilled legislator does, and essentially dared McConnell or anyone else to try to keep her from repeating the words of a female civil rights icon. Once she was silenced by the Senate rules, Warren and Facebook Live took it from there.

But following the rules of the Senate does not mean senators have to sanitize their message. The Sessions debate was also the scene of a quieter, but no less powerful, speech from Sen. Tim Scott. As Scott stood to support Sessions’ nomination, he read aloud from messages he had gotten since he’d announced how he would vote. As the only black Republican in the Senate, Scott is nearly always tasked with the impossible — to live up to the demands of his state, his party, his race, and his conscience, even when they disagree with each other.

“You are a disgrace to the black race,” Scott read from one message. “You are an ‘Uncle Tom Scott’. You are for Sessions. How does a black man turn on his own?” said another. “Sen. Tim Scott is not an Uncle Tom. He doesn’t have a shred of honor,” Scott read about himself. “He is a house Negro.”

Scott’s decision to support Sessions brought him far less of a hero’s welcome than Warren got on Twitter. If there’s a hashtag about Scott’s vote for Sessions, I’m not sure it’s fit for print, but Scott stood by his vote for Sessions anyway. Despite the accusations and vile invective that came his way, he persisted, too, in his own way.

I wouldn’t have expected Sessions’ nomination to offer lessons on progress in America, but it’s there for us anyway — with a female senator refusing to remain quiet and an African-American senator standing up for what he believes is right, even in the face of detractors.

The Senate that Jeff Sessions was sworn into — in 1997 — included nine women, one of whom also was the only African-American senator. Five years before that, there were two women in the Senate.  

Sessions now leaves a Senate with 21 women, among them a Latina, two Asian-Americans and a woman who has both Asian- and African-American heritage. (California’s Kamala Harris.) The Senate also includes three Latino and two African-American men. Slowly, but surely, the membership of Senate is beginning to look like the country it represents.

But the Senate itself, especially the underpinnings of its rules and traditions, are mostly unchanged. The rules do stifle free-form speeches on senators who are also Cabinet nominees, but they are also designed, as the founders intended, to slow the progress of legislation unless it is broadly accepted by the American people.

The rules will become enormously important over the next several months. Like every president before him, Trump, together with his team, will have to find a way to get his agenda through the chamber’s complicated rules. He will quickly become as frustrated as every president before him when he believes 51 votes should be enough to get his way, but realizes he’ll need 60.

Even with his Twitter feed at full throttle, Trump’s proposals will have to get through the Senate based on the merits of his policies, not the volume of his argument. The Senate rules will require not just a simple majority, but also an effective strategy and a coalition broad enough to truly represent the country in all of its diversity.

President Trump has already said that he hopes that McConnell will throw away the filibuster rules for his Supreme Court nominees. It’s only a matter of time before the famously impatient president tells McConnell he wants to scrap all of the rules, especially once a piece of legislative agenda runs into a roadblock on cloture.

But if McConnell demonstrated anything this week when he stopped Warren’s speech, it was that the Senate rules remain in place and operational. They may seem antiquated in a modernizing political and media landscape, but the Senate’s rules have never been more important in our democracy.

Roll Call columnist Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy.