Opinion: GOP silencing of Elizabeth Warren was outrageous, divisive

The U.S. Senate’s rebuke of Elizabeth Warren last night for reading a letter from Coretta Scott King that criticizes Sen. Jeff Sessions is an outrageous abuse of freedom of speech and a dismaying display of the extreme partisanship that has helped poison our politics.

Republican senators formally silenced Sen. Warren, the Democratic firebrand from Massachusetts, during debate on Sessions’ nomination for attorney general as she read from a letter that King wrote in 1986, when Sessions was being considered for a federal judgeship.

In that 31-year-old letter, the widow of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. urged senators to reject the then-U.S. Attorney in Alabama because he had “used the awesome powers of his office in a shabby attempt to intimidate and frighten elderly black voters.”

Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, interrupted Warren as she read the letter, objecting that she had demeaned a peer, invoking a rule against insulting fellow senators. The Senate then voted, 49-43, along strict party lines, to force Warren into silence, at least on the Senate floor, until the battle over Session’s attorney general confirmation is finished.

In one blow, the Republicans moved to muzzle both Warren, who has been a piercing critic of the new Trump administration, and Mrs. King, an icon of the Civil Rights Movement.

They looked clumsy in doing so. Warren later went on Facebook Live outside the Senate chambers to read the letter in full. Twitter and social media erupted with support for her.

And hours later, Sen. Jeff Merkley, a Democrat from Oregon, picked up the Coretta King letter and read it in full. He received no censure.

That fact alone suggests powerfully that, as much as Republican senators wanted to protect the reputation of Sessions, one of their own, they were equally keen to squelch Warren. She must be getting under their skin.

They sure didn’t worry about the optics of sexism. Especially when McConnell justified his move by saying this:

“She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”

The hashtag #ShePersisted became a top trender on Twitter.

And quite frankly, the notion of being forbidden to criticize a fellow senator when that senator is up for confirmation for a Cabinet post — especially top law-enforcement official — is ludicrous.

Animosities are clearly rising to boiling point in the Senate, where the Democrats are doing all they can to slow, if not defeat, the confirmation of Trump cabinet nominees. Republicans, some of whom had once promised to be a check on Trump, are complaining that the Democrats are being obstructionist. But the Democrats are fighting an almost comically inappropriate host of nominees: an education secretary who doesn’t believe in public education; an Environmental Protection Agency administrator who opposes the Environmental Protection Agency; and an attorney general who disdains the Voting Rights Act.

But these heavy-handed tactics by McConnell are likely to backfire. Yes, the Republicans look like heroes to their base, but Warren is also looking more heroic to progressives.

As Barack Obama’s former political adviser, David Axelrod, put it: