On Capitol Hill, Rep. Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri is known as the author of weekly “Dear Colleague” letters he sends to other lawmakers, urging them to temper bipartisan rancor.
A former Kansas City, Mo., mayor and Methodist minister, Cleaver casts himself as a crusader for civility in the U.S. House of Representatives, where it’s scarce.
But this week, Cleaver decided to stop playing nice. The founder of the House Civility Caucus joined his Democratic colleagues in a sit-in on the floor of the U.S. House to demand a vote on gun control legislation — a move he admits will make an already toxic atmosphere even more poisonous. His Republican colleagues called the sit-in a stunt used to raise campaign money.
Cleaver said the sit-in was worth the risk to bring attention to what he sees as a needed overhaul of gun laws.
“The last 24 hours I’ve been more proud to have been a Democrat than I have in all of my previous public life,” he said in an interview as the sit-in drew to a close Thursday.
Cleaver was among the first few dozen lawmakers who took over the House floor shortly before noon on Wednesday in violation of the chamber’s rules.
“There had been discussion about holding a press conference, and that was universally shot down by African-Americans who said: ‘This is what we always do; let’s not do that. It’s obviously not working,’ ” Cleaver said.
Black representatives were particularly fed up with the day-to-day gun violence that plagues many of their communities but rarely makes big headlines, he said.
This is not the time to pray, this is the time to move.
U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo.
“Most of us have clearly seen that in our communities we’ve had a steady stream of people being mowed down by automatic weapons, but not in mass killings,” the congressman said. “Right now they have so many in Chicago that’s it’s not even news anymore.”
Cleaver said Democrats focused on pushing for a vote on a bill that would bar people on the government’s terror watch list from purchasing weapons because it was simple to understand and polled well with the public. Hence the Democrats’ mantra: “No fly, no buy.”
“They are too dangerous to get on an aircraft, but not to own a gun?” he said. “You can’t explain it. The polls are so overwhelmingly supporting the legislation that the leadership understands they will be left alone.”
As long as the sit-in was peaceful, Cleaver said, “we were going to be the winners.”
“It was so significant for me to see Democrats weeping because of how we connected with each other last evening,” he said.
Members who’d hardly spoken to each other before embraced each other on the floor, he said. They chanted and waved pictures and placards with the names of constituents slain by gun violence. They gave passionate speeches their colleagues broadcast live from their smartphones after Republicans shut off C-SPAN’s cameras.
During Cleaver’s turn to speak, he said he’d walked out of the House’s moment of silence after the Orlando, Florida, nightclub shootings because he’d felt it was wrong to continue to be silent in the face of gun violence, not out of any disrespect for the victims.
He referenced a Bible story in which God said to Moses, “This is not the time to pray, this is the time to move.”
During the evening, Cleaver went outside the Capitol to talk to people who’d come to show solidarity.
“Somebody came over and said, ‘Look, there’s a crowd outside, and they’d like you to come speak to them,’ ” Cleaver said. “I thought there were 10 or 12 people on the steps of the Capitol, and I walked outside and there were 400 to 500 people. And I went over and spoke to them and fed off of their commitment and they fed off of my words.”
One woman walked up to Cleaver and two other Democratic congressmen and asked whether she could show them a picture of her daughter.
“I said, ‘Man, she is gorgeous,’ ” Cleaver recalled. “And then she easily slid that picture out of the way and said, ‘This is what an AK-47 did to her. This is a picture of her in the morgue.’ It had the three of us in tears. I couldn’t even watch it. She was killed here in Washington.”
Re-energized, Cleaver said, he went back inside and shared the story.
“That’s why I’m here; that’s why I can go without sleep,” Cleaver said. “She’s going without her daughter.”
House Democrats ended the sit-in Thursday afternoon and were deliberating how to proceed when the House returns from recess on July 5, Cleaver said.
“I think the nightmare scenario for Republicans is that we come back and we will not have altered our plans at all about demanding a vote,” he said. “I think one of the reasons the speaker decided to just adjourn or go into recess was because he probably thought, ‘They’ll go home. They’ll be there over the holidays, they’ll see their families and by the time they get back, they’ll have cooled down and we can go onto business as usual.’ And I’m here to tell you that’s not going to happen.”
Cleaver’s Republican counterparts from Kansas and Missouri dismissed Democrats’ sit-in as political theater. They said the terror watch list was a flawed and secretive document that should not be used to rob Americans of their Second Amendment rights without due process.
“Democrats hijacked the House floor in hopes of forcing a show vote on legislation that would have done nothing to stop the Orlando attacker,” Republican Rep. Kevin Yoder of Kansas said in a statement.
Yoder voted against a Democratic proposal offered in the House Appropriations Committee on Wednesday that would have barred people on the terrorist watch list from purchasing guns.
“Everyone agrees that known terrorists shouldn’t be able to purchase a gun,” Yoder said. “The disagreement lies with whether Congress should be able to restrict the constitutional rights of law-abiding Americans without due process.”
He charged that Democrats were exploiting the latest tragedy in order to restrict Americans’ constitutional rights and raise campaign money.
If you need further proof that this was nothing more than a publicity stunt, the Democrats are fundraising off of their sit-in.
Republican Congresswoman Lynn Jenkins of Kansas
Republican Congresswoman Lynn Jenkins of Kansas said she, too, agreed that terrorists should not be allowed to buy guns. But, she said, there already are procedures to prevent people on the terror watch list from purchasing weapons.
“Additionally, the no-fly list is full of mistaken entries, such as young children and even a U.S. air marshal,” Jenkins said in a statement. “I believe it is an extremely dangerous step to start taking away constitutional rights of a group of people who skew heavily toward minority groups, without any due process.”
She added that the bill Democrats claimed to want had failed in the Senate, receiving fewer than 50 votes, and in the House Appropriations Committee.
“If you need further proof that this was nothing more than a publicity stunt, the Democrats are fundraising off of their sit-in. We need to focus on the real issue – terrorism – and keeping them from harming us, rather than on how best to score political points.”
Cleaver said he was aware that there were some civil rights concerns about the no-fly list, and he supports allocating money to ensure its accuracy.
He also acknowledged that civility now seems like the last thing on anyone’s mind. “I do think that the already toxic relationship between the parties has been further poisoned by what happened last night. . . . I don’t think things are now irreversibly worse than they were.”