House Republicans on Friday morning muted Democratic leaders on the House floor during a brief pro forma session.
Seven Democrats — including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and Assistant Leader James Clyburn (S.C.) — stormed into the chamber just after 10 a.m. in an attempt to blast GOP leaders for remaining on vacation amid an unemployment crisis.
It didn't go well.
After the daily prayer and Pledge of Allegiance, Clyburn rose to speak, but presiding officer Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.) deemed Clyburn "out of order," saying no business was to be conducted during the pro forma session. Denham then gaveled the session closed. The entire process lasted two minutes and 35 seconds.
Undeterred, the Democrats remained in the chamber for roughly 15 minutes, staging an impromptu conversation with themselves about why House Republicans — in particular the newly named members of the conference committee charged with finalizing a payroll tax package — aren't in Washington. Aside from Pelosi and Clyburn, Reps. John Larson (D-Conn.), Xavier BecerraXavier BecerraButtigieg has high name recognition, favorability rating in Biden Cabinet: survey Overnight Health Care — Presented by Emergent Biosolutions — Boosters for all The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by ExxonMobil - House to vote on Biden social spending bill after McCarthy delay MORE (D-Calif.), Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Donna Edwards (D-Md.) took part in the protest.
"We're ready to conference," said Clyburn, one of the conferees. "Where are our Republican colleagues?"
The comments will not be reflected in the congressional record, nor were the C-SPAN cameras rolling at the time.
Afterwards, Denham defended his move, characterizing the Democrats' "theatrics" as "comical."
"We all have a duty to be back in our districts to work on behalf of the people and be representative," he said. "We've already spent way too much time in D.C. in December. We should have been able to pass the [payroll] tax cut for a full year earlier. So now that we have a district work period, that's what we should be doing."
Moments later, Pelosi rejected that argument outright.
"They'll telling us they were here late in December, so they can't be here in January?" Pelosi said at a press briefing in the Capitol. "What is this, one month on, one month off?"
The Republican members of the payroll tax conference panel held a conference call Friday morning.
The Republicans' procedural move also lent Democrats ammunition to hammer GOP leaders who've argued that President Obama's recess appointments this week were illegal because Congress is technically in session. How, the Democrats asked, can Congress be in session but no activity allowed on the floor?
"You can't have it both ways," Pelosi said. "You can't say we're in session but you can't speak in the House chamber."
"If we are not in recess, then why are we not in session?" echoed Waxman, senior Democrat on the Energy and Commerce Committee and another member of the payroll tax conference committee.
Republicans are apparently going to continue the practice of holding pro forma sessions, which they have done to prevent the Obama administration from making recess appointments. However, Obama on Wednesday appointed Richard Cordray to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and made three other appointments to the National Labor Relations Board.
The appointments were backed by an opinion from White House lawyers that Congress is actually in recess, despite the occasional pro forma sessions. But Republicans have warned that the appointments will likely face a legal challenge.
Friday's protest conjured memories of similar episodes in recent years. Last month, House Republican leaders remained in Washington after Democrats left town for the holidays — an effort to portray the Democrats as lazy and out of touch for not conferencing the GOP's proposal to extend the payroll tax for a full year.
"To have these theatrics on the floor after they were absent, I think, is comical," Denham said Friday in reference to the December episode. "I'm glad they're finally appointing their conferees. We look forward to having this debate in a conference, but it should have been done already."
Also last month, Republicans had prevented House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) from speaking on the floor, refusing to recognize him. Hoyer was making a push to accept the Senate's two-month payroll tax holiday extension.
The Democrats' move was also reminiscent of actions taken by House Republicans in 2008, when they remained in Washington for the entirety of the August recess, making floor speeches to a dark and empty chamber to protest congressional inactivity surrounding a spike in fuel costs.
Democratic leaders on Friday rejected the idea that the two episodes are comparable, arguing that the House in 2008 was officially in recess, whereas GOP leaders this month are claiming the chamber is open for business.
"The Republicans are the ones who are saying, 'We're at work,' " Becerra said. "We're saying, 'Prove it.' "