US Senator from Montana and convicted goblin Steve Daines
Steve Daines’s first six weeks as a senator have not been easy. He happened to be presiding over the confirmation hearings for Attorney General Jeff Sessions last month, when Majority Leader Mitch McConnell instructed him to gavel down Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA). That got him on the news. Then he cast the deciding vote to confirm Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, despite calls to recuse himself after she gave $48,000 to his campaign. Last week, he came home.
He was supposed to address the state legislature last Tuesday, but a crowd of protestors that gathered at the capitol caused him to reschedule at the last minute. He spoke to the legislature Wednesday, after protestors had safely gone home. The very next day, he went on Twitter. “Montanans can do a better job than D.C. bureaucrats who’ve never driven a pick-up and have a hard time finding Montana on a map,” he wrote.
Root toot ‘merca truck, you guys. This kind of pandering was my least favorite thing growing up in Iowa, where the performance of hick-ness was integral to public life. But the politicians of Montana take it to new heights. The day after Daines complained that the failure of bureaucrats to drive trucks left them unable to operate the US federal government, he posted a video from Big Sandy, in which he claimed to be “getting all over Montana” to talk to his constituents.
The senator didn’t have to drive the back roads to find constituents; they had come to him 48 hours earlier, and he contorted his schedule to avoid speaking to them. Daines has never been a dynamic public speaker. Although he gets +1 to night vision and can be dangerous in groups, his main political advantage is that he is a party man. If you need someone to do what his superiors in the GOP say, Daines is your boy. It is therefore distasteful for him to pretend that he is some salt-of-the-earth type fed up with Washington, DC. You can read all about it in this week’s column for the Missoula Independent, in which we speculate on his truck-drivin’ bona fides and his life as a freshman in the senate dorms. We’ll be back tomorrow with Friday links!
Yesterday, as the Senate heard testimony regarding the almost certain appointment of Sen. Jeff Sessions (R–AL) to the position of attorney general, a weird scuffle erupted between Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R–Home for Orphan Turtles.) Warren was attempting to read a 1986 letter from Coretta Scott King, wife of Martin Luther King, that accused Sessions of using “the awesome powers of his office in a shabby attempt to intimidate and frighten elderly black voters” when he was US attorney for the Southern District of Alabama. McConnell moved to silence Warren under Rule XIX, which forbids senators from “ascribing to another senator…any conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming a senator” during debate. Here’s a video:
In this scene, the role of Frightened Lackey is played by Montana’s own Sen. Steve Daines, who looks like he has either eaten bad fish or does not want to adjudicate a rules dispute involving the leader of his caucus. Daines sided with McConnell, of course, and Republicans voted to formally silence Warren. Three questions seem relevant here:
Does Rule XIX apply to quoted material? It was not Warren who ascribed to Sessions conduct unbecoming a senator, but rather Mrs. King, whose words Warren read. This might seem like a distinction without difference, but imagine if the Senate were conducting, say, a bribery investigation into one of its members. Would an affidavit from someone who claimed to have paid that senator a bribe violate Rule XIX, if it were read aloud by another senator?
How is the Senate supposed to conduct a confirmation hearing regarding one of its own members without violating Rule XIX? Warren didn’t bring up this letter in a debate about farm subsidies. It speaks to Sessions’s fitness for office, and any debate on that subject is likely to impugn his motives or conduct at some point. At the moment the Senate begins to debate Sessions’s appointment as attorney general, he ceases to become a senator and becomes a candidate for that office. As a senator, he doesn’t get to participate in his own confirmation hearings. Why should he enjoy the other privileges of a senator in that context?
So are Republicans just trying to make Warren’s career, or what?
In another world, Warren spends the next four years slipping from the national spotlight, as Republican control of all known branches of government denies her the forum to publicly grill bankers in the ways that have made her a progressive hero. Or they could martyr her. McConnell seems committed to the second course, even going so far as to furnish a title for her memoir by complaining that “she was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.” This approach seems less than tactically astute. Sessions is going to be attorney general. If Betsy DeVos proved anything, it’s that none of Trump’s appointments will go unconfirmed. So why not let Warren read King’s letter to a mostly empty chamber and a couple thousand viewers on C-SPAN?
Instead, he contributed to her reel. As of this writing, the video of McConnell silencing Warren featured in this post has 350,000 views. That’s just this version; there are a dozen more on YouTube and floating around the internet. Is the majority leader really foolish enough to make a spectacle of Warren’s censure, when the action itself accomplishes so little?
Apparently, he is. The explanation that he is intentionally making Warren the face of the progressive Democratic Party, in the hopes that she will overplay her hand and tarnish that brand in the future, seems a little too 3-D chess to be plausible. Remember the poker player’s rule: don’t assume intelligence. It seems like McConnell has blundered here, possibly because there are no longer any checks on his power. This silver lining is itself mostly dark cloud, but perhaps Republicans will keep overplaying their hands.