Unforced errors in the US Senate

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When you know you are going to win, you can afford to be patient.

TALK ABOUT A STUNNING capacity for unforced errors and self-inflicted wounds.

Liberal Democrat Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren was holding forth Tuesday evening before a mostly empty Senate chamber, voicing her opposition to the nomination of Alabama Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions for attorney general. She quoted the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, who called Sessions “a disgrace to the Justice Department” in 1986 when Sessions was nominated for a federal judgeship. That nomination was rejected.

Warren moved on to read from a letter written about Sessions’ 1986 nomination by Coretta Scott King, the widow of the Rev. Martin Luther King.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell then came to floor and accused Warren of violating an obscure “Senate Rule 19” which prohibits “impugning” the motives and conduct of a fellow senator. McConnell asked that Warren be blocked from further comment. Montana Republican Sen. Steve Daines, presiding over the sparsely attended Senate at the time, upheld McConnell and told Warren, essentially, to take her seat and shut up. A couple of hours later the full Senate, on a party line vote, upheld her silencing for the duration of the Sessions debate.

GOOD LORD. REPUBLICANS clearly had the votes to approve the Sessions nomination. Almost no one was in the Senate chamber listening to Warren. Only the most obsessive political junkies were paying attention. McConnell should have let Warren say her piece and then Republicans would move on to achieve the foregone conclusion of Sessions winning approval.

Instead, here’s what McConnell achieved:

• He put Republicans on record looking as if they believe the words of civil rights icon Martin Luther King’s wife are not fit to be heard in the Senate. That’s a ready-made ad appealing to minority voters next election cycle.

• He created the cringe-worthy optics of older white men telling the woman to sit down and shut up, which no doubt will do wonders for Republicans’ already wide gender gap at the polls.

• He made Warren a bigger hero to the left, arguably an early front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020.

All that, for no apparent reason. Everybody knew the vote would be called. Everybody knew Sessions would be confirmed.

McConnell needs a lesson in how to win with grace. It should start with this maxim: When you know you are going to win, be gracious and patient.

A FINAL WORD: Call it a civics class. Who knew “Rule 19” even existed? It says: Senators may not “directly or indirectly, by any form of words impute to another Senator or to other Senators any conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming a Senator.” Huh? Most Americans, we suspect, believe there are plenty of senators who deserve to be called out for unworthy conduct. That’s a rule which ought to be scrapped in a chamber calling itself the world’s greatest deliberative body. Fact is, the rule almost never is raised. It was deployed against Warren for no other reason than to silence her. That was accomplished, but the tactic has backfired substantially on McConnell and his troops. America is a country committed to free speech. Somehow, it just seems appropriate the U.S. Senate should embrace the concept.

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