'No bill, no break': House Democrats continue sit-in protest into early morning
Fed up with Republican inaction on gun control, House Democrats, including nearly three dozen from California, shut down business as usual Wednesday with an old-fashioned, if highly unusual, sit-in that forced live television coverage of the chamber off the air and sent GOP leaders scrambling for cover.
The scene, including chants of “No bill, no break!” was like nothing that has occurred in Congress in recent years, more reminiscent of the civil rights battles of the 1960s than today’s often predictably scripted debates.
As of Thursday morning, Democratic lawmakers were still delivering protest speeches, despite a late-night maneuver by Republicans to formally adjourn until after the July 4 holiday. It remained unclear how long Democrats would continue the sit-in.
Following the Orlando, Fla., mass shooting — and others in San Bernardino and Newtown, Conn. — along with the Senate’s failure to advance gun ownership restrictions earlier in the week, Democrats said they’d had enough.
It began Wednesday, when shortly after the House gaveled in for a routine day of legislating, Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) strode into the chamber, stood at a lectern and called on his colleagues to join him. Within moments, about two dozen lawmakers gathered around him as he spoke.
Rise up, Democrats. Rise up, Americans. This cannot stand. We will occupy this floor. We will no longer be denied a right to vote.
— Rep. John B. Larson (D-Conn.) before House Democrats staged a sit-in
Then many sat, legs crossed, on the chamber’s blue-carpeted floor. By midafternoon, scores more had arrived to show their support, vowing to stay until they received a vote on gun-control legislation.
“I wondered, what would bring this body to take action?” thundered Lewis, who as a young man marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. “What is right, what is just for the people of this country? … They have lost hundreds and thousands of innocent people to gun violence. What has this body done? Nothing. Not one thing.”
Republicans, who control the House majority, declared the proceedings out of order and quickly called a recess, which automatically turned off the cameras that usually provide live coverage to C-SPAN.
But it hardly mattered. Lawmakers took to social media, tweeting and updating their status from the floor. San Diego Democratic Rep. Scott Peters posted live Periscope video that C-SPAN eventually began broadcasting.
“So why not turn on the House cameras?” Peters tweeted. “What is @PaulRyanPress afraid of?”
As the sit-in entered its sixth hour, lawmakers got more emotional. Members of the Florida delegation were brought to tears. San Bernardino Rep. Pete Aguilar’s voice broke as he spoke.
“Mr. Speaker, where the hell are you?” Rep. John Garamendi (D-Walnut Grove) yelled when it was his turn to speak. “Your chair is empty. I don’t believe your heart is empty."
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), who had spent the morning rolling out the latest flank of his “Better Way” agenda — ideas for replacing President Obama’s healthcare law — called the protest “nothing more than a publicity stunt."
"This is not a way to try to bring up legislation,” he said on CNN, adding that GOP lawmakers do not support the Democratic-backed legislation because it would put at risk Americans’ constitutional right to purchase guns.
After 1 a.m., after more than 13 hours, House Republicans returned to the chamber and began attempting to end the sit-in by wrapping up legislation so they could vote to leave. The session adjourned shortly after 3 a.m.
The House won't meet again until after the July 4 holiday, but a handful of House Democrats pressed on overnight and Pelosi said they would be back Thursday morning.
"I just don't think we end it now. We have just a few more hours before daybreak," Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) said, vowing to stay. Reps. Eric Swalwell (Dublin) and Norma Torres (Pomona) said they would stay as well.
Protests in Congress can take different forms, such as the filibuster in the Senate and procedural votes in the House. During the 2008 summer recess, House Republicans held a similar protest against Democrats’ refusal to vote on GOP energy bills they believed would lower skyrocketing gas prices. During the 1995 federal government shutdown, Democrats refused to leave until services were restored after Republicans recessed.
House GOP officials noted that Democrats, when they controlled the House in 2008, also shut off the cameras.
“It’s worth noting that when House Democrats were in the majority, they not only shut off the cameras, they actually shut off the lights,’’ said a House GOP leadership aide who did not want to be identified.
Democrats face long odds of passing new gun restrictions with both the House and Senate controlled by Republicans, and the National Rifle Assn. opposed to most of the bills that have been proposed.
Earlier this week, the Senate rejected four proposals to restrict gun purchases — including one that would have prevented terrorism suspects such as Orlando shooter Omar Mateen from buying guns, and another that would require background checks for almost all gun sales.
Despite a 15-hour filibuster led by Sen. Christopher S. Murphy (D-Conn.), votes fell largely along party lines.
A compromise bipartisan proposal introduced by Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine and backed by leading Democrats has not been scheduled for a vote.
Polls show most Americans favor new gun restrictions, but opinions become more divided along party lines with Republicans largely believing gun laws are adequate.
Wednesday’s sit-in began around 11:30 a.m. Shortly after noon, the Republican presiding officer gaveled the chamber back into session and proceeded with the morning prayer, but the protest continued and another recess was called.
Several senators, including Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, walked across the Capitol to join their peers in the House, as lawmakers took turns in the chamber sharing personal stories from their own lives, and their congressional districts, of those lost to gun violence.
Rep. Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco, the Democratic leader, led supporters and activists to the steps of the Capitol for a press conference. She admitted Democrats are fighting an “uphill battle” in trying to pass legislation, but assured the crowd there is bipartisan support for this legislation.
"People are tired of moments of silence," Pelosi told reporters, saying a "spark" has happened with the Orlando shooting and lawmakers are determined and emboldened. "It's not going to go away until we get reasonable legislation."
Rep. Bobby L. Rush (D-Ill.) talked about the death of his son, who was shot and killed in 1999. Rush described feeling helpless after his son died.
“I never will forget the primal scream of my son’s mother,” Rush said on the Capitol steps.
Rep. Elizabeth Esty (D-Conn.) said she, too, remembered the “primal screams” of family members at a firehouse after the Sandy Hook shootings in Newtown.
“Make no mistake,” said Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to End Gun Violence. “We’re putting you on notice. We’re not going away.”
Gun-control advocates praised the House Democrats for forcing attention on the issue.
“As Dr. King used to say, 'The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,'” said Lucy McBath, faith and outreach leader for Everytown for Gun Safety and the mother of a teenager slain by gun violence. “We are seeing the arc bend before our very eyes — Americans demand that we do more to disarm hate."