A Fist Fight On The Senate Floor Gave Us The Rule That Liz Warren Violated
A 1902 fist fight on the floor of U.S. Senate prompted the creation of the much debated Rule XIX that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell used Tuesday night to stop Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Liz Warren from attacking Alabama Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions.
Warren had been reading a 1986 letter penned by Coretta Scott King that opposed Jeff Sessions’ nomination by President Reagan to become a federal judge. Sessions was a U.S. Attorney in Alabama at the time.
“Mr. Sessions has used the awesome powers of his office in a shabby attempt to intimidate and frighten elderly black voters,” Warren read from the letter.
“The senator has impugned the motives and conduct of our colleague from Alabama, as warned by the chair,” McConnell said, alluding to the line in the letter, “Sessions has used the awesome power of his office to chill the free exercise of the vote by black citizens in the district he now seeks to serve as a federal judge.”
McConnell called the Senate to order under Senate Rule XIX, which bans debating senators from attributing “to another senator or to other senators any conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming a senator.”
How did Rule XIX come to be? According to the Senate website, since its origin, the upper chamber focused often on the decorum of its proceedings. The first 10 rules of the Senate relate to appropriate conduct.
Vice President Thomas Jefferson wrote in the now well-known “Manual of Parliamentary Practice”: “No one is to disturb another in his speech by hissing, coughing, spitting, speaking or whispering to another; nor to stand up or interrupt him; nor to pass between the Speaker and the speaking member; nor to go across the [Senate chamber], or to walk up and down it, or to take books or papers from the [clerk’s] table, or write there.”
By 1856, the chamber’s reputation for its rules of decorum could not stop a brutal beating of anti-slavery Massachusetts Republican Sen. Charles Sumner. Sumner was repeatedly caned into unconsciousness by South Carolina Democratic Rep. Preston Brooks during a debate over whether Kansas should be allowed into the Union as a slave state or a free state.
The Senate floor became a fight arena again on February 22, 1902. South Carolina Democratic Sen. John McLaurin accused fellow South Carolinian and Democrat Ben Tillman, the senior member, of making “a willful, malicious, and deliberate lie.”
Tillman turned around and punched McLaurin in the jaw. At that point a riot broke out on the floor as members attempted to separate the two southerners. Both men, as well as bystanders, were injured. Previously a political ally of Tillman, McLaurin strayed toward the Republicans who controlled Congress and the White House at the time.
Tillman exploded at McLaurin when his colleague changed his position to favor Republicans on a treaty. Regardless of the reasons behind the fight, both members were censured and the Senate added the Rule XIX six days after the ruckus on the floor.
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