In an unsuccessful move to halt a Democratic protest in the House of Representatives, Republican leaders adjourned the House early Thursday morning, delaying a possible vote on gun control legislation until lawmakers return July 5.
But Democrats remained on the chamber floor, vowing to continue the sit-in started Wednesday morning until Republican leaders acquiesced to a vote on “no fly, no buy” legislation restricting gun purchases by suspected terrorists.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., brought lawmakers to vote on several bills at 2:30 a.m. Thursday, including a funding bill to address the Zika virus, then moved to adjourn the session, sending lawmakers home. The adjournment followed several attempts by Republicans to proceed despite Democrats’ protests, which they called a political stunt.
Ryan had reconvened the House after 10 p.m. Wednesday for a vote on an unrelated issue, but while the vote went forward, chaos reigned, with Democrats chanting in the well of the House in a demonstration unprecedented in modern times.
Ryan made no effort to clear the demonstrating members of Congress from the House floor, and some Democrats appeared prepared to spend the night in the chamber. Pillows and blankets in preparation for a long night could be seen from the House gallery where spectators were watching the proceedings.
“In residency, when I was trying to be a doctor, we would stay up sometimes from 24 to 36 hours and I’ve certainly slept at nurses stations,” said Rep. Ami Bera, a Democrat from Sacramento, California, who went home to grab his glasses and a toothbrush to prepare to overnight. “And I think that is the least of our problems . . . because how comfortable is that mom that lost her child in Orlando?”
It was dramatic political theater 10 days after a gunman who’d twice been investigated for links to terrorism attacked a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, leaving 49 people dead and 53 wounded, and just one day after the Senate failed to move forward legislation intended to block suspected terrorists from purchasing weapons.
How many families and communities will be torn apart by our epidemic of gun violence before Republicans summon the courage to act?
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla.
By the time the Republicans returned to the House floor, 168 House Democrats – out of 188 – and 34 Senate Democrats had joined the protest, according to the office of the House minority leader.
Adding to the drama, C-SPAN, the company that broadcasts House proceedings, stopped airing the developments at 11:25 a.m., when Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, who was presiding when members began the sit-in, declared the House in recess and ordered cameras turned off.
C-SPAN’s usual broadcast image of the House chamber, with an overlay tabulating the vote, returned after Ryan ordered members to reconvene. But other networks highlighted the unusual nature of the day by showing a split screen that contrasted the seeming calm of the C-SPAN image with a raucous feed from Facebook Live of Democrats in the House well chanting loudly.
Ryan was unable to gain control, and he left the dais, with Republicans looking exasperated at a rare revolt of minority party members against the majority that usually can call the shots unchallenged. On the vote, the House failed to override President Barack Obama’s veto of an unrelated House resolution.
The Democrats seemed almost giddy with their revolt, singing “We Shall Overcome” and relishing their ability to bring proceedings to a halt. Holding sheets of paper with the names of gun violence victims above their heads, they chanted “No bill, no break” and “shame, shame, shame” so loudly that they drowned out Ryan.
“I’m very proud of my colleagues. We’ve got to do something radical,” said Rep. G.K. Butterfield, a North Carolina Democrat. “This is the way great movements began. This is the way the March on Washington started, and Rosa Parks, and all the great movements that we can remember started with just a idea.”
He added, “We shut down the floor today and there won’t be any legislative activity this week unless we are respected. The beauty of it is that it’s spontaneous!”
Democrats credited Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, a revered civil rights leader, with sparking the debate. Another civil rights leader, South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn, held a sign that read “Emanuel 9” in memory of the victims of the Charleston church shooting last year that also had sparked calls for tougher gun laws. In one of the seats, forgotten in the chaos, was a blown-up photograph of Emanuel AME Church, scene of the killings.
The Democrats were encouraged by visitors in the House galleries, who broke the rules by loudly cheering and chanting. Outside the Capitol, a crowd gathered holding rainbow signs with the words “Disarm Hate.”
Earlier, Clyburn had vowed to stay in the House chamber “all day and all night if necessary.”
“I did it for three days one time before,” Clyburn told MSNBC, referring to his days in the civil rights movement in the 1960s. “I believe my body can take two days.”
Republicans called the sit-in an obstructionist publicity stunt. Their occasional booing was drowned out by the Democrats’ chants. Aides could be seen scurrying for backup batteries as at least a third of the House Democrats seemed to be filming the proceedings at any given point.
The role of live streaming social media n the day’s events heightened the sense of rebellion, with some analysts comparing what unfolded to internet-fueled uprisings in other nations. C-SPAN officials explained the network’s failure to air the protest after Poe ordered a recess by pointing out that it does not control the cameras in the House chamber.
But as frustration grew online that C-SPAN was not carrying the sit-in live, lawmakers took the initiative to ensure coverage.
Tweeting #TurnOnTheCameras, Rep. Scott Peters, a Democrat from La Jolla, California, turned to his Periscope app to live-stream the protest. Thousands of people joined his stream, and by Wednesday evening, C-SPAN had turned to Peters’ feed to broadcast the impassioned pleas of Democrats for consideration of gun-purchase limits on people named on the no-fly list.
“How many families and communities will be torn apart by our epidemic of gun violence before Republicans summon the courage to act?” said Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the Democratic National Committee chair, in a speech that C-SPAN carried from a Facebook stream by Democratic Rep. Beto O’Rourke of El Paso, Texas. “How many more times will they block the ‘No Fly, No Buy’ legislation that would help keep us safe? Their inaction is a national disgrace, and House Democrats will not stand for it any longer. And so we sit!”
Wasserman Schultz, her voice breaking, also read a letter from former Rep. Gabby Giffords, who was shot in the head and critically wounded Jan. 8, 2011, as she met with constituents outside a Safeway store near Tucson, Arizona.
“Speaking is difficult for me, but I haven’t been silenced,” wrote Giffords, who now leads a gun-control group called Americans for Responsible Action. “And neither should the American people. Their representatives must vote to prevent gun violence.”
Others who turned to Periscope or Twitter to keep a steady live stream going from the House chamber included Rep. Eric Swalwell from Dublin, California, and Rep. Brad Sherman, of Sherman Oaks, California.
At one point, Swalwell used his Facebook account to broadcast a floor speech on how Chicago has been going through “an epidemic of gun violence.”
“#HoldTheFloor until gun violence action,” Swalwell posted.
Some lawmakers launched a tweet storm against Ryan, the speaker.
“You are right, Mr. Speaker,” said Rep. Janice Hahn, a Los Angeles Democrat. “The House is not in order. We will not be in order until you schedule a vote. #NoMoreSilence”
“.@SpeakerRyan @HouseGOP Why have you turned off the House cameras?” tweeted Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif. “Let the people see! #NoBillNoBreak #NoFlyNoBuy #goodtrouble #DisarmHate”
Ryan spokeswoman AshLee Strong defended Poe’s decision to recess the House as the sit-in progressed.
“The House cannot operate without members following the rules of the institution, so the House has recessed, subject to the call of the chair,” she said.
A senior House Republican aide said it was worth noting that when House Democrats were in the majority, “they not only shut off the cameras, they actually shut off the lights.”
It was the first time in history that lawmakers in the minority used social media to circumvent the power held by the chamber’s majority party and the first time C-SPAN tapped into a social media resource to bypass the majority’s grip on its operations.
What’s extraordinary for us today is House members are using social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Periscope to show what’s happening on the House floor when it’s not in session.
Howard Mortman, C-SPAN
“We have not done this before,” said Howard Mortman, C-SPAN’s director of communications. “We’ve incorporated social media extensively in our overall coverage. But what’s happening right now, to be able to put on TV Periscope and Facebook Live video to this extent, is the first time we’ve ever done this for our coverage of the House.”
“What’s extraordinary for us today is House members are using social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Periscope to show what’s happening on the House floor when it’s not in session.”
Democratic senators also took up positions in the House to express their solidarity. Among the senators who took seats on the floor were Cory Booker of New Jersey, Al Franken of Minnesota, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Patty Murray of Washington and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.
“House Democrats are doing the right thing,” said McCaskill, who was on the losing side in Senate efforts to pass limits on gun purchases by suspected terrorists. “It’s a simple proposition: If you’re suspected of terrorist activity and can’t fly, you shouldn’t be able to buy a gun. A vote on that is a reasonable request. And what’s particularly disappointing is to see Republican leadership turn off the cameras.”
The sit-in initially was conceived as a symbolic act by the Congressional Black Caucus before a scheduled news conference where they were to call on Republican leaders of the House to allow votes on gun control legislation. But what started as a small uprising grew into something bigger as one House member after another took to the floor to speak.
Rep. Lois Frankel, a second-term Democrat from West Palm Beach, Florida, said she thought of her son as soon as she heard about the deadly Orlando violence.
“Before I am a politician, I am a mom,” she said. Then repeating the locations of other mass shootings, she added, “So today I demand action for the mom in Aurora who sent her child to the movies, for the mom whose children went to pray in Charleston, for the mom in Orlando whose child went out for a night of celebration.”
This is not the first time House Democrats have staged a sit-in on Capitol Hill. Democrats refused to leave the chamber without coming to an agreement on how to end a partial shutdown of the government in 1995. Freshman Democrats seized the floor in 1973 to express their views on a spending veto during an era when freshman lawmakers were encouraged to be seen and not heard.
James Rosen, Teresa Welsh and Elizabeth Koh contributed to this report.
Lindsay Wise, 202-383-6048 @lindsaywise
Maggie Ybarra, 202-383-6048 @MolotovFlicker