In recent years, the Senate has operated under a filibuster rule that 60 votes are needed to end debate and bring an issue to a vote. However, President Trump has encouraged the Senate to "go nuclear" if they cannot get 60 votes in favor of ending debate on his Supreme Court nominee, meaning to change the rules so that a simple majority is sufficient to finish the nomination process.

Tonight on the Senate floor, during a debate on the nomination of Jeff Sessions for Attorney General, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) attempted to read a letter from Coretta Scott King that had been persuasive in his previous hearing as part of an unsuccessful nomination to a federal judgeship. However, Mitch McConnell (R-KY) interrupted that reading with an accusation that these words "impugned the motives and conduct" of Sen. Sessions (R-AL), and a party-line vote was held in which Sen. Warren was silenced and prevented from participating in the rest of the debate. A tweet by Sen. Christopher Murphy (D-CT) indicated he might try to continue where Warren left off.

Could the Republicans do exactly the same to Sen. Murphy, and every other Democrat who speaks out, thus effectively bringing an end to debate and preventing a filibuster, with their simple majority?

EDIT: This question is not meant to be specific to one particular confirmation hearing. It is meant to be a broader question about whether or not this particular strategy of silencing the minority is allowed under the Rules of the Senate and applicable laws, as a valid way around a filibuster.

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    Review the implementation of the Nuclear Option in the Senate under a Democratic majority, and evaluate your premise. Feb 8, 2017 at 5:57

3 Answers 3


Elizabeth Warren was accused of being violating Senate Rule XIX.

  1. No Senator in debate shall, 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.

This was what she said that was in violation and she was warned by the Senate's presiding officer, Steve Daines:

“He is, I believe, a disgrace to the justice department and he should withdraw his nomination and withdraw from the Justice Department… Like he did, I will cast my nomination against the vote of Sen. Sessions,” Warren said, quoting Kennedy.

However, she continued speaking and took issue with Daines' characterisation. That was when the Senate Majority Leader cut her off.

The key is that there must be evidence of rule violation before a Senator can be silenced. In this case, Senate Republicans argued that Senator Warren was warned before she was barred from speaking. An article by Vox describes how a Senator can be silenced.

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    to complete the answer to the question, I would add: So, no the filibuster cannot be stopped by silencing the minority unless every member of the minority spoke in a way to violate Senate Rule XIX
    – jalynn2
    Feb 8, 2017 at 13:18
  • Could rule xix be applied to any speech against the nominee?
    – user9389
    Feb 8, 2017 at 16:26
  • @notstoreboughtdirt - Probably not. "[C]onduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming a Senator" doesn't cover anything related to the job they will be taking or specific facts or commentary on the nominee's qualifications. It only restricts discussing things that were done (conduct) or the reasons for them (motive). So "You have no experience with _______" is valid, but "You took bribes from the _____ industry" is not.
    – Bobson
    Feb 8, 2017 at 17:38

In theory, yes. They would vote that members of the other party broke rules that allowed silencing them. Practically, this is both impossible and pointless. They would have to vote on each individually, so that would eat up time. Silencing the oppostion like that would probably not play well with the people that voted them in, and would likely lead to at least some of them not getting relected. And it would give the opposition a free hand to say whatever they wanted to in public.

  • re: "They would vote that members of the other party broke rules that allowed silencing them". If they haven't actually broke the rules though, such a vote would make the government dysfunctional. I don't mean that as a slur. I mean that as a descriptive term. The entire government functions under the guise that the people in charge do their best to follow the rules of conduct which are agreed upon. If the rules are flagrantly not followed, the whole exercise becomes moot.
    – grovkin
    Feb 2, 2019 at 3:37
  • @grovkin: the question isn’t whether it whether it would be a good idea or not, but whether it was possible. It’s theoretically possible but as I said, practically impossible, pointless even if possible and counterproductive even if you didn’t think it was either impossible or pointless. Not going to happen.
    – jmoreno
    Feb 2, 2019 at 11:52
  • well, the extreme version of this question/answer exchange is "Q: could all government employees stop following laws and regulations and just do what what they wanted as long as their bosses allowed it? A: yes, they could, but it would not be a good idea." The reality is that it would be worse than a bad idea. It would be a different form of government. Ultimately all laws and rules are just words written on some paper unless the people in charge are willing to follow them. They could stop, but that seems outside of the realm of what we should consider.
    – grovkin
    Feb 3, 2019 at 9:06
  • @grovkin: no, that’s not the extreme version because if they stopped following all laws and regulations they would be all be committing crimes and we’d quickly go back to vigilante justice to get things under some kind of control. Short of a new constitution convention, or starting a revolution there’s no legal recourse for any vote by a congressman — we have to wait and replace them.
    – jmoreno
    Feb 7, 2019 at 1:45
  • regardless of whether we'd go back to vigilanteeism, that would still be a different form of government.
    – grovkin
    Feb 7, 2019 at 7:34

You are talking about two things.

  1. Filibuster the filibuster. Reid made that possible when the Democrats had the majority. He was warned that he could be at the receiving end of his own stick. Today's Democrats should thank him for that.

  2. On Warren, your recollection of current event could use some major improvement. Rule 19 is what tripped her. That rule existed all along, and applies to all equally. Except that the senator from MA violated it.

Seems fair to me.

  • Links to specific events in #1 are warrantred.
    – user4012
    Feb 8, 2017 at 12:49
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    This question isn't meant to be just about the current event, but a broader question about Senate rules.
    – WBT
    Feb 8, 2017 at 14:45
  • the answer would still be the same: the rules have known to be there for a long time and are applied to everyone. She did the crime and she should do the time, so to speak.
    – dannyf
    Feb 8, 2017 at 14:51
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    @dannyf - No one's disputing that. The question is: "Can that mechanism be used to prevent a filibuster in the first place?" This answer doesn't address that.
    – Bobson
    Feb 8, 2017 at 17:41

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