Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellHouse passes standalone bill to provide B for Israel's Iron Dome Pelosi vows to avert government shutdown McConnell calls Trump a 'fading brand' in Woodward-Costa book MORE’s (R-Ky.) decision to rebuke the Senate’s most prominent liberal woman has significantly raised the temperature in what was already a red-hot chamber of Congress.
The partisan back-and-forth between McConnell and Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Warren11 senators urge House to pass .5T package before infrastructure bill Senate Democrats seeking information from SPACs, questioning 'misaligned incentives' UN secretary-general blasts space tourism MORE (D-Mass.) was the culmination of weeks of simmering tension over President Trump’s Cabinet nominees and the latest indication that bipartisanship will be elusive in 2017.
Senate Republicans aren’t regretting the unusual Tuesday night vote to suspend Warren from the debate on Sen. Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsOvernight Hillicon Valley — Apple issues security update against spyware vulnerability Stanford professors ask DOJ to stop looking for Chinese spies at universities in US Overnight Energy & Environment — Democrats detail clean electricity program MORE’s (R-Ala.) nomination to serve as attorney general, even though it caused a media firestorm and energized the Democratic base.
For McConnell, it was about defending a colleague and friend with whom he has served since 1997 and firing a warning shot at Democrats.
Frustrations have steadily mounted within the GOP conference over Democratic maneuvers that have slowed the confirmation of Trump’s Cabinet nominees to a crawl. In addition to bogging down McConnell’s timeline, Democrats have raised a variety of questions about the ethics and competence of the nominees.
Warren, who is viewed as a top-tier 2020 presidential candidate, is usually very selective about her media interviews and generally does not engage with reporters in the Senate hallways. But on Wednesday, she went on a media blitz, which included interviews with CNN, MSNBC, ABC’s “The View” and The Hill.
“The rules are designed so that we can have tough debates about difficult issues without impugning one another’s motives,” said Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioDemocrats face bleak outlook in Florida The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - Dems attempt to tie government funding, Ida relief to debt limit Poll: Trump dominates 2024 Republican primary field MORE (R-Fla.). “I promise you, if the Senate becomes a place where people routinely insult one another, Americans aren’t going to be happy.”
A senior GOP aide said, “Senate Republicans were not going to allow Democrats to turn the Senate floor into a forum for invective against a sitting member of this chamber.”
The level of partisanship in the Senate has been on the rise over the last several years, but some contend that 2017 could be the nastiest year in recent memory. For example, Sen. Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchLobbying world Congress, stop holding 'Dreamers' hostage Drug prices are declining amid inflation fears MORE (R-Utah) called his Democratic colleagues “idiots” for not showing up to confirmation hearings, and Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerDemocrats' do-or-die moment Biden touts 'progress' during 'candid' meetings on .5T plan Progressives push for fossil subsidy repeal in spending bill MORE (D-N.Y.) was one of only six Democrats to reject Elaine Chao to head the Transportation Department. Chao is McConnell’s wife.
Not one Republican member on Tuesday voted against the motion to invoke Rule 19 of the chamber, which prohibits senators from impugning the motives of a colleague. The 49-43 party-line roll call promptly ended Warren’s ability to speak about Sessions on the floor.
Sen. Steve Daines, an affable Republican from Montana, was presiding over the chamber and issued a warning when Warren quoted a 1986 statement from the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) calling Sessions’s prior service as U.S. attorney a “disgrace” to the Justice Department.
After Warren went ahead and read a 30-year-old letter from Coretta Scott King accusing Sessions of “reprehensible conduct,” alleging that as a U.S. attorney he tried to intimidate African-Americans into not voting, McConnell came to the floor to invoke the rules.
Republicans say Democrats have treated Sessions badly since the moment Trump nominated him and point to Warren as one of the primary instigators of their hardball strategy.
Immediately after Trump tapped him, Warren told her colleagues “there can be no compromise with racism; no negotiation with hate,” a reference to allegedly racist statements Sessions made decades ago as U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Alabama.
That call to arms put pressure on other Democrats to put up a fight against Trump’s nominees and led to one of the most contentious nomination process in recent memory. Only five of Trump’s Cabinet nominees had been confirmed as of Wednesday afternoon. President Obama had 12 confirmed at the same point in his first term, and President George W. Bush had 14.
Session was confirmed in a vote of 52-47 Wednesday evening.
Democratic tactics have irritated Republicans, specifically Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) asking Sessions at his confirmation hearing whether he ever received an award from the Ku Klux Klan and Sen. Cory Booker’s (D-N.J.) testimony against his nomination before the Judiciary panel — an unprecedented effort by a senator to derail the nomination of a sitting colleague.
“I think decorum is important in the House and the Senate,” said Sen. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeBiden nominates former Sen. Tom Udall as New Zealand ambassador Biden to nominate Jane Hartley as UK ambassador: report The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Goldman Sachs - Voting rights will be on '22, '24 ballots MORE (R-Ariz.), a former member of the House. “I hope if I ever disparage any of my colleagues on the Senate floor, I hope somebody calls me on it.”
GOP aides said there was also growing pressure from their base to stand up to Democratic “obstructionism.”
“Our own side is asking, ‘Why don’t you stand up and fight for the integrity of an honorable man?’ ” said the Republican aide. “If we didn’t stand up for him, what was our base going to say?”
The effect on the liberal base, however, appeared to be more pronounced and gave Warren a lot of free press on Wednesday. Many prominent Democrats, including 2016 presidential nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonHeller won't say if Biden won election Whitmer trailing GOP challenger by 6 points in Michigan governor race: poll GOP political operatives indicted over illegal campaign contribution from Russian national in 2016 MORE, came to her defense.
McConnell’s statement justifying the discipline — “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.” — became a rallying cry for the left. On Wednesday afternoon, #ShePersisted was the top or second-highest trending hashtag on Twitter.
The Daily 202, a political blog published by The Washington Post, wrote that McConnell had given Warren’s possible 2020 presidential campaign “an in-kind contribution.”
Larry Sabato, the director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, suggested that McConnell in Machiavellian fashion had intentionally helped Warren reap a media bonanza because he thinks she would be relatively easy for Trump to beat if he faces her in the 2020 general election.
“This is a strategic player,” he said of McConnell. “It could not have possibly escaped him that telling the most prominent woman senator [to] sit down and shut up while reading a letter from Coretta Scott King would promote her among Democrats.
“Who do the Republicans say they’d like to run against in 2020? Elizabeth Warren is usually the first name mentioned,” he added. “They think she’s too far to the left and they have a lot of ways to beat her.”
He said McConnell had elevated Warren above other Democratic White House hopefuls, a handful of whom are serving in the Senate.
When asked about this theory, Warren in an interview with The Hill said, “I don’t know how I feel about that,” adding, “I think you have to ask [McConnell].”
Liberal Democrats said if that’s what McConnell’s motive was, they’re elated to see Warren’s political stock rise.
“God bless him,” said Sen. Jeff MerkleyJeff MerkleyOvernight Energy & Environment — Presented by the League of Conservation Voters — Senate Finance chair backs budget action on fossil fuel subsidies Top Democrat says he'll push to address fossil fuel tax breaks in spending bill Democrats revive filibuster fight over voting rights bill MORE (D-Ore.), one of the Senate’s most liberal members. “May he elevate the progressive wing because I think it’s resonating powerfully with Americans.”
Sen. Tom UdallTom UdallOvernight Defense: Milley reportedly warned Trump against Iran strikes | Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer killed in Afghanistan | 70 percent of active-duty military at least partially vaccinated Biden nominates former Sen. Tom Udall as New Zealand ambassador Senate Democrats befuddled by Joe Manchin MORE (D-N.M.), another progressive, thinks the explanation for McConnell’s disciplining of Warren is relatively simple.
“Elizabeth Warren gets the Republicans’ blood boiling. She’s hard-hitting and speaks her mind,” he said.
Republican senators on Wednesday defended McConnell. But they weren’t thrilled with the messy fight, which only further energized Democrats who on Tuesday evening appeared a little weary after conducting an all-night talkathon to protest Betsy DeVos’s nomination for secretary of Education.
Rubio said the decision to rebuke Warren was “borderline,” and Sen. Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerCheney set to be face of anti-Trump GOP How leaving Afghanistan cancels our post-9/11 use of force The unflappable Liz Cheney: Why Trump Republicans have struggled to crush her MORE (R-Tenn.) said it would have been preferable if a vote could have been avoided.
On Wednesday morning, several male Democratic colleagues read King’s letter on the Senate floor and did not receive any discipline.
Pressed on whether there is a double standard for her, Warren demurred and said, “Ask Mitch McConnell.”