Democrats seize spotlight with sit-in on guns
By Cristina Marcos
Democrats seized the floor and the political spotlight on gun control Wednesday, staging a sit-in that shut down the House and C-SPAN’s cameras.
Lawmakers took over the floor just before midday and said they would not relinquish control until Republicans allowed a vote on legislation to prevent suspected terrorists from buying firearms.
Republicans gaveled the chamber into recess and turned off the House cameras, leaving Democrats to give speeches in a mostly empty chamber.
But Democrats used Twitter and other social media platforms to deliver their gun control speeches and chants of “No bill, no break” to a national audience.
And C-SPAN, after repeatedly noting on air that it had no control over the House cameras, switched to Periscope and Facebook Live to air the scene on its main network.
CNN and other cable networks also frequently cut to the House floor, ensuring the Democratic push got a lot of attention.
Democrats on the floor said the sergeant at arms kept reminding them to stop taking photos and video, a violation of House rules. But that didn’t stop Democrats from continuing to whip out their cellphones throughout the sit-in.
Even reality TV star Kim Kardashian got into the act, tweeting a picture of the protest to her 46 million followers on Twitter.
With the House scheduled leave for its July 4 recess on Friday, it wasn’t clear whether the chamber would be able to return to normal operation.
Republicans attempted to take back control of the floor late Wednesday evening by voting on an override of President Obama's fiduciary rule. Democrats erupted into deafening chants as Speaker Paul Ryan tried to take control, and promptly shot down the measure in a roll call vote while chanting, singing, and holding signs with the names of gun violence victims. Ryan called the House back into recess after the vote.
In the Senate, Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) announced his support for a bipartisan measure to keep guns from suspected terrorists that has been spearheaded by Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine).
The National Rifle Association opposes the bill, and it would need 60 votes to clear procedural hurdles, but it appears to have a chance of passing.
The extraordinary actions in the House marked a significant change in Democratic tactics on gun control, highlighting the rising passions since a lone gunman who pledged support for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria killed 49 people in Orlando on June 12.
Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a civil rights icon who was beaten by police in the 1965 march in Selma, Ala. and has participated in civil rights sit-ins, led Wednesday’s protests in a move meant to symbolize civil disobedience.
“Sometimes you have to do something out of the ordinary. Sometimes you have to make a way out of no way. We have been too quiet for too long,” Lewis said in a speech that led into the sit-in.
'There comes a time when you have to say something, when you have to make a little noise, when you have to move your feet. And this is the time. Now is the time to get in the way.”
The plan seems to have originally stemmed from Reps. David Cicilline (R.I.) and Katherine Clark (Mass.). Rep. John Larson (Conn.) thanked them on the floor Wednesday evening for working with Lewis to organize the sit-in.
Democrats participating in the protests seemed to revel in sitting casually on the House floor. Seats in the chamber remained empty as many lawmakers opted to sit cross-legged on the floor taking photos of each other and live-streaming video.
Lawmakers took turns reading aloud names of recent victims of gun violence, sharing personal stories and returning to chants of "No bill, no break."
At one point, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, read aloud a letter from her close friend, former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.).
Giffords, who was shot in the head at a constituent event in January 2011, has since become a prominent advocate for gun control.
House Republicans were visibly annoyed by the protest.
“I don't think we should allow ourselves to be blackmailed and intimidated, and that's what this is. No minority gets control of the floor,” Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a senior appropriator, told The Hill. “We didn't do this during ObamaCare, but if we allow this precedent to get set, where does is stop?
“I don't think the people who started this fight have thought very much about a way to end it.”
He said Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) “needs to ask herself what she'd do about it if she were Speaker and this were being done to her.”
On social media, a few Republicans offered harsher takes.
“Calling this a sit-in is a disgrace to Woolworth's,” Rep. Mark Walker (R-N.C.) tweeted, referring to the 1960 protests at a lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C., that helped kick off the civil rights movement. He argued that Democrats were in fact sitting-in to strip rights away from Americans.
The cameras showing House floor proceedings are controlled by the majority leadership, which has repeatedly declined in recent years under both parties to grant C-SPAN power over the footage.
House GOP aides also noted that the chamber approved rules for this Congress that call on the House cameras to be turned off when the chamber is not in session.
And they pointed to a 2008 incident under then-Speaker Pelosi’s leadership when Democrats turned off the cameras as Republicans talked about gas prices.
Even so, Republicans were clearly caught off guard by Democrats’ stunt on Wednesday.
The sit-in stretched throughout the day, forcing Republicans to postpone scheduled consideration of a financial services spending bill.
Multiple senators trekked across the Capitol to show solidarity with House Democrats, including Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Tim Kaine (Va.), Dick Durbin (Ill.), Maria Cantwell (Wash.), Ron Wyden (Ore.) and Cory Booker (N.J.).
Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, who met with House Democrats on Capitol Hill earlierWednesday, praised the protest on Twitter, as did former President Bill Clinton and White House spokesman Josh Earnest.