Rebellious Democrats staged an extraordinary all-day sit-in on the House floor Wednesday to demand votes on gun-control bills, shouting down Speaker Paul Ryan when he attempted to restore order as their protest stretched into the night.
The stunning and unruly scene was broadcast live to the world from Democrats’ cell phones, feeds picked up by C-SPAN after Republicans shut down the network’s cameras.
The sit-in was well into its 10th hour, with Democrats camped out on the floor stopping legislative business in the House, when Ryan stepped to the podium to gavel the House into session and hold votes on routine business. Angry Democrats chanted “No bill, no break!” and waved pieces of paper with the names of gun victims, continuing their protest in the well of the House even as lawmakers voted on a previously scheduled and unrelated measure to overturn a veto by President Barack Obama.
Ryan attempted to ignore the outbursts and announce the business of the day, pounding down his gavel over shouting. “Shame! Shame! Shame!” Democrats yelled, but Ryan left the lectern and the voting continued.
The scene presented a radical, almost shocking departure from the normal orderly conduct of the House. It was uncertain what would happen as the night stretched on. Republicans planned to attempt to adjourn the House, and hoped to present themselves as soberly attending to business and Democrats as disruptive. Democrats said they would stay until Republicans yielded to their demands to have votes on bills to strengthen background checks and prevent people on the no fly list from getting guns.
“Are they more afraid than the children at Sandy Hook?” asked Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., referring to the 2012 shooting that killed 26 people, including 20 elementary school children, in Newtown, Conn.
Ryan dismissed the protest as “nothing more than a publicity stunt,” and in an interview with CNN, made clear there would be no vote. “We’re not going to take away a citizen’s constitutional rights without due process,” he said.
The protest began around 11:30 a.m., interrupted briefly when Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, tried to start the House’s work at noon. The customary prayer and Pledge of Allegiance went ahead, but Poe was forced to recess the House when dozens of Democrats refused to leave the well.
By evening, 168 House Democrats – out of 188 – and 34 Senate Democrats joined the protest, according to the House minority leader’s office. One after another, they spoke of the need for gun control and talked of constituents who had been killed.
Congress remains gridlocked over gun control, a divide even more pronounced in a presidential election year. The sit-in had the feel of a 1960s-style protest, as some lawmakers sat on the floor, others in their seats. Lawmakers brought pillows and blankets to the House as the protest stretched past midnight and Democrats vowed to continue.
Republicans had staged a similar protest in 2008. Democrats controlling the House at the time turned off the cameras amid a GOP push for a vote to expand oil and gas drilling. Republicans occupied the floor, delivering speeches after then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi sent the House on its August recess.
Although the cameras were turned off Wednesday, lawmakers relied on social media to transmit video, using Facebook, Twitter and Periscope. C-SPAN broadcast live video streamed on Periscope and Facebook from lawmakers’ accounts. Democrats posted the Capitol’s main telephone number, which was overwhelmed, and urged constituents to call and request a vote. They also encouraged tweeting under the hashtag #NoBillNoBreak.
Democratic senators joining the protest included Minority Leader Harry Reid, Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Chris Murphy, D-Conn., who had waged a nearly 15-hour filibuster last week to force votes in the Senate on gun legislation. Those votes failed Monday night.
U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan accused Republicans of being “soft on terrorism” while joining fellow Democrats on the House floor as part of a sit-in calling for a vote on gun-control legislation.
Ryan’s speech during the protest was captured by a Periscope video from a House Democrat and shown on his congressional Facebook page.
“I think everyone of us need to talk about it in this way: Republicans are soft on terrorism, period, dot, end of sentence,” said Ryan of Howland, D-13th. “If you’re not for [gun control], you are weak on terrorism, and you are weak on protecting the American people. That is our message.”
He added: “I believe that this is illuminating a bigger problem here in Congress and in Washington. The American people are wondering what’s going on in Washington? Why all the gridlock?”
Speaking directly to fellow Democrats on the House floor, Ryan said, “What you all are doing here today is communicating to the American people why it is the Republican-led Congress that is preventing us from doing something 90 percent of American people want.”
A recent CNN poll showed that 92 percent want expanded background checks and 85 percent support banning people on federal watchlists from buying guns.
U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson, R-6th, of Marietta said, “It’s unfortunate the House Democrats continue to exploit the terrorist attack in Orlando for political gain. When the Democrats controlled the House and Senate, with a Democrat in the White House – as recently as 2010 – they could have passed some kind of gun control then, but they didn’t. Today’s action on the House floor is shameful.”