Impugning a Senator

Senator Elizabeth Warren was just asked to leave the Senate floor for attempting to read a letter written by Coretta Scott King that addresses Senator Jeff Sessions. The vote to uphold the finding was upheld. The letter was written in response to then US Attorney Sessions appointment to be a federal judge. His appointment was a spectacular failure in large part because of this letter.

In what universe is reading a letter written by a civil rights leader about a nominee to be our Attorney General impugning him? Here is that letter

Here is an excerpt:

“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,” King wrote in the cover page of her nine-page letter opposing Sessions’s nomination, which failed. “Mr. Sessions has used the awesome powers of his office in a shabby attempt to intimidate and frighten elderly black voters. For this reprehensible conduct, he should not be rewarded with a federal judgeship.”

Thirty years later, Sessions, now a senator, is again undergoing confirmation hearings as President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for attorney general, and he is facing fierce opposition from civil rights groups.

In the letter, King writes that Sessions’s ascension to the federal bench “simply cannot be allowed to happen,” arguing that as a U.S. attorney, the Alabama lawmaker pursued “politically-motivated voting fraud prosecutions” and that he “lacks the temperament, fairness and judgment to be a federal judge.” She said Sessions’s conduct in prosecuting civil rights leaders in a voting-fraud case “raises serious questions about his commitment to the protection of the voting rights of all American citizens.”

“The irony of Mr. Sessions’ nomination is that, if confirmed, he will be given a life tenure for doing with a federal prosecution what the local sheriffs accomplished twenty years ago with clubs and cattle prods,” she wrote, later adding, “I believe his confirmation would have a devastating effect on not only the judicial system in Alabama, but also on the progress we have made toward fulfilling my husband’s dream.”

Someone sure doesn’t want that entered into the record and a large number of Senators are shaming Senator Warren for attempting to have it so. Share the letter everywhere you can!

The Nuclear Option: Explained

In between cabinet confirmations, everyone’s whispering about the Senate’s nuclear option. With Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell hedging his bets and not saying one way or another whether he’s willing to use it, and with other Republican Senators insisting that Neil Gorsuch will be confirmed one way or another, it’s clear that it’s at least in play. President Trump encouraged Senator McConnell to use it if that’s what it took.

But what IS the nuclear option? I see a lot of disinformation out there ranging from “It makes the filibuster illegal” to “It can’t happen until the Senate changes their rules at the beginning of a session.” Neither are quite accurate.

The Senate and House are governed by huge volumes of strange, arcane, and sometimes non-sensical parliamentary rules. One of them is that the Senate requires 60 votes to move forward on confirmations. The nuclear option changes it to 51 votes, and given that Republicans control 52 seats, that might well be the only way to get ANY Supreme Court nominee confirmed.

So how does it work?

As expected, with lots of individual steps and processes that make even a parliamentarian’s head spin. If you really want to read every little bit of it, here’s a report from the Congressional Research Service.  I’ll give you the gist of it without the banality.

Simply put: The nuclear option requires that 51 Senators vote to change the rules requiring 60 votes to 51 votes. It can be done while the Senate is in session, it can be limited to specific votes or to exclude votes, and yes, it’s been done before.

Democrats did it in 2013 to push a bunch of judicial nominees through, though it was explicitly limited to not include Supreme Court nominees. No one has ever tried it on a Supreme Court nominee and no one seems to really want to, though I suspect our current crop of Senators are willing to if it comes down to it.

Our legislators are so hesitant to use it because it’s one hell of a precedent to set. The Senate is the “sane” legislative body. They’re calmer, they’re not fighting for re-election every 2 years, they’re more contemplative, and they have a lot more power. They’re generally more serious. Senators know that once you open the Pandora’s Box that is the nuclear option because no one wants it to come back and bite them in the ass when their party isn’t the one in power anymore.

This is a terribly contentious nomination for myriad reasons, all of which we can discuss here in the future. For now though… that’s the nuclear option in a nutshell.