While Democrats congratulated one another Thursday on their 25-hour sit-in to demand gun control votes, they also set a precedent that could make it easier for small minorities to bring government to a halt.
Thursday’s reviews of the Democrats’ unorthodox street-style protest in the House of Representatives seemed to suggest it was a hit. The longer it went, the more the social media world cheered them on. People even came to the Capitol grounds to show support. The ravenous 24-7 news cycle couldn’t get enough.
"This is the way great movements begin," declared Rep. G. K. Butterfield, D-N.C.
But the tactic also kicked open the door for others with minority views to create even more gridlock in a city already rife with inertia and a Congress whose public approval ratings are at historic lows.
Will Donald Trump supporters sit in until lawmakers agree to vote on a temporary ban on Muslim immigrants? Or building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico?
Will environmental activists bring the House to a halt? How about foes of Planned Parenthood funding? Or supporters? Or those who have been pushing for a constitutional amendment to declare marriage a union between a man and a woman?
16% Public approval rating for Congress’ job according to June 1-5 Gallup poll
The House Freedom Caucus, a group of about 40 conservative Republicans, has been frustrated for years by what it sees as a too-accommodating GOP leadership. They and the grassroots tea party movement helped engineer a partial government shutdown three years ago, and have resisted bipartisan efforts to craft budgets.
Last fall, they branded the latest agreement a "fiscal monstrosity ... negotiated in secret" with Democrats and were instrumental in toppling House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.
If it appears Democrats were successful, “others may be inclined to do this,” said Tommy Binion, director of policy outreach at the conservative Heritage Foundation. But, he warned, the public’s patience for such strategies is limited. “You’ve got to be careful,” he said.
While conservative groups offered no hints they were thinking that way Thursday, their leadership was concerned.
"I think it sets a very dangerous precedent," said House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., disagreed. It’s not a “fringe element” in the way the tea party was, she said. “I think it probably has more element than fringe,” she said.
Republicans control 247 seats in the House of Representatives. Democrats control 188. It’s historically been difficult for the minority party to get a vote for its legislation.
I'm very worried about the precedents here.
House Speaker Paul Ryan commenting on the House Democrats’ sit-in
Bills first have to pass through committees, which are tightly controlled by Republicans. However, any member can seek 218 signatures, a majority of the House, to get his measure considered by the full chamber.
That rarely happens, and bipartisanship has faded in recent years. As that’s happened, the minority party has long employed attention-getting tactics. Eight years ago, House Republicans refused to leave the dark chamber at the start of the summer recess until they got a vote on more offshore oil drilling. They ordered pizzas, invited tourists into the chamber to watch and took turns speaking for a few hours.
Democrats, then in the majority, allowed votes the next month, largely because they were concerned that consumers upset at rising gasoline prices would blame them.
This week’s protests are very different. Gun control advocates are outraged that after a gunman killed 49 people at an Orlando nightclub, Republicans still remain reluctant to take up what advocates regarded as serious gun control measures. They saw little hope of meaningful negotiation, so they staged the sit-in.
"We have to go around them and go to the public. It’s a message to the general public to get them excited. Public opinion’s on our side. They just need to hear what we’re doing," said Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev.
All of this would not have been possible without the activism of the outside groups.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi on the House Democrats’ sit-in
The danger for Democrats is that once the excitement fades, their sit-in looks like a new way to sustain gridlock. The Senate has been stuck on gun measures, too, but earlier this week, four Democrats and four Republicans began discussing common ground.
That effort came about as senators played by the rules. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., led a 15-hour talkathon last week, which is permitted, and created enough pressure so that the Senate took four procedural votes Monday on gun legislation.
While all four failed, the bipartisan group began talking, and a vote is expected next week. While it’s not expected to pass, at least the system is working.
So why not try that in the House?
"We’ve tried hashing it out, and they won’t listen," said Rep. José Serrano, D-N.Y., echoing the views of most of his colleagues.
Republicans counter that gun control measures have been considered in appropriate committees, including the measures that failed this week. If Democrats want full House consideration, then get the votes, they say.
Time now for a new battle cry, say some Democrats. As Butterfield put it, “We’ve got to do something radical.”