WASHINGTON — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell handed Sen. Elizabeth Warren and the progressive wing of the Democratic Party the moment they were craving on Tuesday night, when he silenced the Massachusetts senator as she read a letter by a civil rights icon.
But those who are familiar with McConnell insist the Republican leader didn't make a political miscalculation by invoking an arcane Senate rule. In fact, things went as he planned, they say.
The thinking is that the elevation of Warren and any way to show that Republicans are trying to keep the Senate functioning — even as it grinds to a halt — works in the party's favor.
"I think everybody inside and outside the Senate knows that McConnell doesn't do anything without a plan," said one GOP strategist. "His ability to see around the corner is entirely unrivaled."
"Any attention that people pay to Elizabeth Warren is good for Republicans," the strategist said. "She just isn't the type of candidate who would do well in states that Democrats lost last cycle."
Ten Senate Democrats are up for re-election in 2018 in states that President Trump won. Democrats this year are having to balance their base's desires to block the new administration's agenda with making sure their colleagues have the right type of messaging to win their races next year.
If the balance tips over to the progressives, then — in theory — Republicans have a better shot at not just keeping their Senate majority but expanding it. And moments like these can help by energizing the conservative base.
After Senate Republicans voted to silence Warren for the rest of the debate on Sen. Jeff Sessions' attorney general nomination for "impugning" a fellow senator, Democrats who took the floor that night and on Wednesday continued to keep Warren in the spotlight by defending her actions.
"What happened last night was the most selective enforcement of Rule 19,"
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said on the floor Wednesday morning, pointing out instances when Republicans have attacked fellow senators in floor speeches without using the rule to quiet them.
"This is not what America is about — silencing speech, especially in this chamber," he said.
Warren had been reading a letter Tuesday evening that Coretta Scott King, the widow of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., wrote in 1986 explaining her “strong opposition” to Sessions, when McConnell interrupted her and invoked a rarely used rule to silence her. Rule 19 is meant to keep senators from attacking each other on the floor of the Senate, which is governed by many arcane rules and procedures.
"Sen. Warren was giving a lengthy speech," McConnell said Tuesday, explaining his reasoning. "She had appeared to violate the rule. She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”
The exchange and following vote against Warren made #LetLizspeak and #ShePersisted go viral on social media. The senator posted a video of her reading the full letter on her Facebook page. As of Wednesday afternoon, it had 7.6 million views.
But with Democrats continuing to slow-walk Trump’s cabinet appointees, Republicans on Capitol Hill say the move was less about a political strategy and more just in line with how McConnell, widely known as a master of Senate procedure, runs the upper chamber.
Weeks of protests from Democrats have been increasingly frustrating for Senate Republicans, who ended up pushing two of Trump's cabinet nominees through committee when Democrats boycotted the meetings.
Warren's speech, which quoted former Sen. Ted Kennedy calling Sessions "a disgrace" and King's letter, was the tipping point for some Republicans, a Senate aide said. Republicans believed it to be a clear violation of the rule but also were determined to show they still controlled the upper chamber.
"The Democratic strategy is to break rules and not show up to vote and then have press availabilities," another Senate GOP aide said. "That's not what the Senate is about."
"The majority of the American people aren't going to be very happy if they see Democrats doing this all the time. The reason that McConnell is shutting this down is because he wants to demonstrate that we're working through things."
Asked about McConnell's intentions in using the rule Tuesday night, Don Stewart, a spokesman for the GOP leader, said the senator made it clear why he brought up the rule when he did. "I’m not sure why people are looking for some deeper meaning in this, but no, I don’t have additional comment."
Tarini Parti is a politics reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.
Contact Tarini Parti at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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