Dems find voice with disruption

Dems find voice with disruption
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Democrats have found their voice by reveling in being an especially disruptive minority.

The nearly 26-hour sit-in on gun control that ended Thursday was the biggest success for House Democrats in years.


It energized the caucus’s members, who took obvious relish in throwing majority Republicans off balance.

Middle-aged lawmakers opted to sit cross-legged on the House floor, leaving nearby chairs empty, as if they were kids at sleep-away camp. Many made a show of bringing fluffy blankets, pillows and sleeping bags onto the floor and posted photos of pizza box towers in the cloakroom.

While Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanHow Kevin McCarthy sold his soul to Donald Trump On The Trail: Retirements offer window into House Democratic mood Stopping the next insurrection MORE (R-Wis.) and other Republicans warned of a dangerous precedent, Democrats in the minority appeared to believe they had nothing to lose by throwing the chamber into chaos.

In many ways the sit-in was a culmination for Democrats, who in recent weeks have found new ways to overturn business as usual in the House.

A week before the dramatic protest on gun control, Democrats erupted into chants of “Where's the bill?" after the House observed a moment of silence for the victims of the massacre in Orlando, the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history.

Before that, GOP leaders found themselves scrambling after Democrats forced votes on a measure last month to ensure workplace protections for LGBT people.

Democrats say that each of those incidents occurred on its own merits. But each disruption had the same effect: the ensuing mayhem galvanized the Democratic base and made the GOP look like it had lost control over the House.

The House is decidedly not the Senate, where the minority party can effectively stop most legislation.

House rules offer limited options for the minority party to move legislation on their own or to halt floor proceedings.

To force passage of gun control legislation, Democrats could start what's known as a discharge petition, or force procedural votes like motions to adjourn to stage protests.

But a discharge petition almost never works. It requires a majority of House members to sign on to it, meaning Republicans would have to back the effort.

Such wonky procedural moves also aren't as likely to capture the nation's attention.

The sit-in came about after Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.), a former Democratic Caucus chairman, consulted the House parliamentarian and Congressional Research Service to confirm what options were available. 

"There weren't very many avenues," Larson told The Hill. "And most of them have been used, but they get dulled out. They never make the point."

Then Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), the civil rights icon, offered the idea of a sit-in like the ones he participated in during the 1960s. “Sometimes, you've got to get in the way,” he told fellow Democrats in a meeting to organize the protests.

In recent years, Democrats have mostly had influence because of divisions among House Republicans. Many must-pass items, like end-of-year spending bills to prevent government shutdowns, needed Democratic votes in order to pass.

These days, Democrats are enthusiastically pulling the rug out from under Republicans.

At one point during the sit-in late Wednesday night, Ryan could barely be heard speaking over the Democratic din.

“I really want the Congress to work. But you've got a problem when you mess with people's civil rights,” Rep. Scott Peters (D-Calif.) said in an interview Friday.

The sit-in launched just moments after the caucus had huddled with Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonThe Armageddon elections to come Poll: Trump leads 2024 Republican field with DeSantis in distant second The politics of 'mind control' MORE in the Capitol Wednesday morning. Democratic lawmakers –– a vast majority of whom are fervid backers of their presumptive presidential nominee –– were already feeling a sense of fellowship, particularly in contrast to the Republicans, who are practically at war over whether to embrace Donald TrumpDonald TrumpNorth Korea conducts potential 6th missile test in a month Kemp leading Perdue in Georgia gubernatorial primary: poll US ranked 27th least corrupt country in the world MORE at the top of their own ticket.

“You saw the stark contrast,” Rep. Steny Hoyer (Md.), the Democratic whip, said. “Unity [among Democrats] versus disorganization [and] lack of confidence in the other party in their leader.

“America's going to see that.”

House Republicans, meanwhile, are incensed that the minority has commandeered the floor in an institution designed for the majority party to have complete authority. 

Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions (R-Texas) in a statement described Democrats as “tyrannical” —a word that would normally never be associated with a House minority.  

None of Ryan’s GOP colleagues are criticizing his handling of the situation.

They acknowledge there’s not much else he could have done given the lack of precedent for such a protest and the fact that Republicans were admittedly caught flat-footed. GOP sources said there was no possibility that the Speaker would direct the sergeant at arms to physically remove occupying Democrats, particularly Lewis, from the floor.

But some GOP lawmakers have begun to urge Ryan to punish those Democrats who violated House rules by taking photos and videos inside the chamber during the daylong protest. A number of lawmakers, including Peters and Reps. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) and Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas), used their phones to stream video of the protests to the outside world since the House video feed was shut off.

Censuring those rule breakers is one possibility. During an emergency GOP conference meeting the night of the protest, Rep. John Carter (R-Texas), a former county judge, stood up and called for “strict enforcement of the rules.”

“Moving forward, [GOP] caucus members will expect a better plan to regain control of the floor,” said one lawmaker with close ties to leadership. “And there is a high expectation that members who openly flouted the rules of the House will be punished.”

Peters remained defiant in his decision to live-stream the sit-in.

“They want to pick this fight and say the American people shouldn't hear this stuff, that we're like the Politburo, the Chinese communist party?” Peters said. “If you want people to calm down, there's a better way than fighting a stupid battle over rules.”

Democratic leaders said they’ll take action again after the recess, but they haven’t settled on a specific tactic. Members are looking at a range of options, including occupying the House floor once again or doing another act of civil disobedience that results in arrests.

Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), one of the handful of Democrats who launched the sit-in Wednesday morning, said the protest brought the caucus together in a way he's never seen. 

“The group came to the floor and really spoke from their hearts about gun violence and what it meant in their own personal lives, in their communities, in a way that I think taught us a lot about each other,” Cicilline said.

Scott Wong and Mike Lillis contributed.