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Idaho Sen. Risch defends move to block Coretta Scott King letter from admission in Senate

Holding a transcript of her speech in the Senate Chamber, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. reacts to being rebuked by the Senate leadership and accused of impugning a fellow senator, Attorney General-designate, Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2017, on Capitol Hill in Washington. Warren was barred from saying anything more on the Senate floor about Sessions after she quoted from an old letter from Martin Luther King Jr.'s widow about Sessions. (J. Scott Applewhite / AP)

Idaho Sen. Jim Risch is staunchly defending his role in blocking Sen. Elizabeth Warren from reading a letter written by Coretta Scott King during Tuesday evening’s debate over the confirmation of Jeff Sessions as U.S. attorney general.

“It doesn’t matter who wrote it – the rules are the rules,” Risch said Wednesday. “If you don’t have rules, you have anarchy.”

Risch contended the letter “impugned” Sessions. Written in 1986, when Sessions was U.S. Attorney in Alabama, the letter from King, widow of Martin Luther King Jr., objected to Sessions being appointed as a federal judge – a nomination the Senate at that time rejected.

It said, “Mr. Sessions has used the awesome power 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.”

Risch said Wednesday, “It was very derogatory to Jeff.”

Warren told the Boston Globe, “It’s a powerful letter and it describes a moment in our history that is important to every one of us today.” She urged people to read the letter.

After Warren began reading from the letter in her debate against confirming Sessions’ nomination, she was blocked from debating any further by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who cited Senate Rule 19, a century-old, rarely invoked rule that says, “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.”

Risch said of the King letter, “That’s about as unbecoming and unworthy as you can ascribe to someone.”

Risch, a conservative Republican who’s in his second Senate term after serving for years as a leader in the Idaho state Senate, has long been a stickler for the rules.

“When I’m sitting on the floor of the Senate, either here or in the state, when people had a violation of the rules that was obvious and flagrant, to me it’s like scratching on a blackboard with your fingernails – it’s hard to sit still,” he said.

In one famous incident in the Idaho Senate in the 1990s, after college student demonstrators had disrupted a Senate floor session, Risch forcefully took charge. He said it’s an “urban myth” that he made a citizen’s arrest. “I did order the state police to clear the gallery,” he said. “They did make some arrests, but I didn’t arrest anybody.”

Tuesday night’s clash in the U.S. Senate made national headlines; the move against Warren prevented her from taking any further part in the debate over Sessions’ confirmation.

Risch said after that happened, Senate Democrats asked unanimous consent to enter the letter into the Senate’s record. “Leadership wasn’t on the floor,” Risch said. “I’ve been in one or two dustups on the floor before. … So I objected.”

“I’m not going to give my unanimous consent to violate the rules,” he said.

That led to speeches both for and against admitting the letter into the record; Risch said he and Florida GOP Sen. Marco Rubio “took turns talking about how important it was” to uphold Senate rules, and the letter wasn’t admitted.