Democrats end sit-in on gun control

Greg Nash

Democrats ended their sit-in on the House floor shortly after 1 p.m. on Thursday afternoon, after more than 24 hours of stalling proceedings to call for action on gun-control legislation.

Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) spoke while surrounded by his Democratic colleagues to close the protest, which lasted through the night after beginning shortly before 11:30 a.m. Wednesday.

“We must come back on July 5 more determined than ever before,” Lewis declared in anticipation of the House’s return date after the Independence Day recess.

Democrats rallied on the Capitol steps after ending the sit-in, but their next move remains unclear.

Rep. Xavier Becerra (Calif.), chairman of the caucus, pledged Democrats will continue the push “in whatever way we can,” adding, “We’re going to do everything we can to try to get a vote.”

Dozens of leaders and senior party members spilled out of a whip meeting on Thursday afternoon saying they intend to press for gun reform votes, but there did not seem to be a definitive plan for doing so. 

Party leaders are framing the sit-in — and the attention it attracted — as a turning point, both in the gun debate and in the manner that House business is conducted. 

“There is a breaking point, and I think that this — Orlando — was a breaking point,” said Rep. Sandy Levin (D-Mich.), referring to the mass shooting at an Orlando gay nightclub last week that left 49 dead and 53 wounded. 

Rep. Joe Crowley (N.Y.), vice chairman of the Democratic Caucus, echoed that message and warned of similar tactics to come.

“A fire’s been lit across out nation,” Crowley said. “It’s a new day in Washington, it’s a new way to fight, as well. We’re not going to sit back and do nothing anymore.”

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) on Thursday dismissed the sit-in as “a political stunt” and “a fundraising scheme” designed to churn up campaign cash for Democrats during a high-stakes election year. 

“If this is not a political stunt, then why are they trying to raise money off of this — off of a tragedy?” he asked reporters during a press briefing in the Capitol. 

The protest has put Ryan in a pickle. The Speaker has built a reputation as a stickler for the rules, insisting that lawmakers vote within allotted timelines and more generally adhere to House decorum. Infractions, he’s warned, will have consequences. 

But on Wednesday night, Ryan presided over a House chamber in utter chaos — and bit his tongue and did nothing about it. 

It wasn’t that he didn’t have the power to tame the chamber. 

But he opted not to involve the sergeant at arms, which might have led to the made-for-YouTube spectacle of congressional lawmakers — including Lewis, the civil rights icon who was almost killed by police in the 1960s — being physically removed from their own chamber’s floor.

Many Democrats expressed reluctance in breaking the rules of the House to mount their insurrection. But invoking advice from Lewis, they said there also comes a time to make “good trouble.” 

Inaction on gun reform, in their eyes, was such a time.

Democrats turned to video live-streaming platforms such as Periscope and Facebook Live to ensure the public could see their protest after the House cameras that feed C-SPAN were turned off.

House rules state that cameras can only film proceedings when the chamber is in session. It is also against House rules to take photos or video on the floor, though lawmakers typically don’t face consequences for violating decorum.

Ryan warned Thursday that the extent of Democrats’ rule-breaking could result in some sort of punishment. Republicans are concerned that the sit-in could start a negative precedent if a minority of members want to hold up proceedings.

“We’re reviewing everything right now,” Ryan told reporters. “When we see our democracy descend in this way, it’s not a good sign.”

The House spent most of Wednesday in recess, as Democrats refused to cede the floor to the GOP majority. 

Not until 10 p.m., nearly 12 hours after the sit-in began, did GOP leaders try to proceed with the previously scheduled legislative business. 

But a vote on an unrelated measure only led to more intensified shouts of “No bill, no break!” from Democrats, who also broke into song with a modified version of the civil rights hymn “We Shall Overcome.”

House Republicans ultimately decided to forgo almost all of the agenda they had originally scheduled for the week, which included consideration of a financial services spending bill. They instead decided to accelerate consideration of an emergency funding package to combat the Zika virus, which was viewed as the only “must-pass” item before a scheduled Friday departure date for the July Fourth recess.

After returning to Washington late Tuesday night for the week, the House adjourned around 3:14 a.m. Thursday, once the Zika package passed.

The early adjournment didn’t stop Democrats from continuing their sit-in through the night. They made a show of displaying pillows, blankets and sleeping bags on the House floor in the early hours of Thursday morning to demonstrate their commitment to their effort.


Updated 2:05 p.m.


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