June 22, 2016 In The News

Democrats disrupt House, stage sit-in for gun votes

WASHINGTON – Rebellious Democrats staged an extraordinary all-day sit-in on the House floor Wednesday to demand votes on gun-control bills, shouting down Speaker Paul Ryan when he tried to restore order as their protest stretched into the night.

The stunning scene was broadcast live to the world from Democrats’ cellphones, feeds picked up by C-SPAN after Republicans shut down the network’s cameras.

The sit-in was well into its 10th hour, with Democrats camped out on the floor stopping legislative business, when Ryan tried to gavel the House into session and hold votes on routine business. Angry Democrats chanted “No bill, no break!” and waved pieces of paper with the names of gun victims, continuing their protest in the well of the House even as lawmakers voted on a previously scheduled and unrelated measure to overturn a veto by President Obama.

Ryan attempted to ignore the outbursts and announce the business of the day, pounding down his gavel over shouting. “Shame! Shame!” Democrats yelled, but Ryan left the lectern and the voting continued. Then Democrats began singing “We Shall Overcome,” still holding up the names of gun victims.

The scene presented a radical, almost shocking departure from the normal orderly conduct of the House.

It was uncertain what would happen as the night stretched on. Republicans planned to attempt to adjourn the House, and hoped to present themselves as soberly attending to business and Democrats as disruptive. Democrats led by Georgia Rep. John Lewis said they would stay until Republicans yielded to their demands to hold votes on bills to strengthen background checks and prevent people on the no fly list from getting guns in the wake of last week’s massacre in Orlando, Fla.

Among those joining the sit-in were area Reps. Robert Brady and Brendan Boyle of Pennsylvania and Donald Norcross of New Jersey.

Brady said that after recent shootings, voters “want to see something other than a moment of silence.”

Said Norcross: “The American people deserve to be heard and they deserve a vote. I’ll repeat what has been said time and again throughout this day: No Bill, No Break.”

Boyle tweeted that the sit-in was “definitely one of proudest moments of my life.”

Lewis – a veteran civil rights leader who will receive Philadelphia’s Liberty Medal in September – asked what Congress has done, then answered his own question: “Nothing. We have turned a deaf ear to the blood of innocents. We are blind to a crisis. Where is our courage?”

Ryan dismissed the protest as “nothing more than a publicity stunt.” In an interview with CNN, the speaker said the House would not vote on a “bill that takes away a person’s due process.”

The protest began around 11:30 a.m., interrupted briefly when Rep. Ted Poe (R., Texas) tried to start the House’s work at noon. The customary prayer and Pledge of Allegiance went ahead, but Poe was forced to recess the House when dozens of Democrats refused to leave the well.

By late afternoon, 168 House Democrats – out of 188 – and 34 Senate Democrats joined the protest, according to the House minority leader’s office.

Congress remains gridlocked over gun control, a divide even more pronounced in a presidential election year. The sit-in had the feel of a 1960s-style protest, as some lawmakers sat on the floor, others in their seats.

Brady listed a litany of bills – to close background-check loopholes, or ban high-capacity magazines or assault weapons – that he said could improve safety.

Republicans had staged a similar protest in 2008. Democrats controlling the House at the time turned off the cameras amid a GOP push for a vote to expand oil and gas drilling. Republicans occupied the floor, delivering speeches after then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi sent the House on its August recess. Pelosi ordered the cameras turned off. Republicans ultimately forced the drilling provision to be attached to a stopgap spending bill.

Ryan said Wednesday that House leaders were “waiting to see what the Senate does before proceeding” on gun legislation, including a possible compromise that Sen. Susan Collins (R., Maine) is seeking.