The usually staid U.S. Capitol erupted in confusion Wednesday as a unified Democratic Party took the unprecedented step of shutting down House business with a peaceful, yet forceful, protest.
“No bill, no break,” was chanted by more than 60 Democrats when Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas) tried to open the House for morning business on Wednesday. More than 30 reporters then flocked to the usually empty press gallery to see the action firsthand, as Republican aides scurried about confused by what they were witnessing.
Just like the press corps, Republican leaders were utterly caught off guard when the minority party, led by civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis, employed the tactics he and other civil rights leaders perfected in the 1960s. But instead of lunch counters sit-ins over racist Jim Crow laws, this one was staged on the blue carpeted House floor, and centered on the demand by Democrats to vote on a myriad of gun-control measures.
“We were elected to lead, Mr. Speaker. We must be headlights, and not taillights,” Lewis intoned on the House floor around 11:30am EST. “We cannot continue to stick our heads in the sand and ignore the reality of mass gun violence in our nation. Deadly mass shootings are becoming more and more frequent. Mr. Speaker, this is a fact. It is not an opinion. We must remove the blinders. The time for silence and patience is long gone.”
Speaker Ryan’s lieutenants reacted by basically shutting the place down. They quickly gaveled the chamber into an hours long recess, then turned off C-Span’s cameras and cut the audio feeds in the historic chamber.
Democrats overcame the obstacle with the live—and illegal, according to House rules—Periscope feed of Rep.Scott Peters (D-Cal.), which garnered tens of thousands of views, likes and sympathetic comments from across the nation.
Throughout the rest of the day Democrats spread out across the chamber, with a couple dozen sitting in the empty seats reserved for the Republican majority, as a dozen or so remained seated on the ground at the feet of their colleagues who gave impassioned speeches that ranged from mass shootings in their districts to tales of stray bullets in gang-ridden areas that claimed the lives of sleeping infants.
This is not how the House is supposed to function.
See, one lawmaker can shut down Senate business by speaking until they’re out of breath or need a bathroom break. But the House was created to be run by majority rule. Democrats turned that precedent—and with it House rules—on its heads by taking over the chamber.
This may mark a new era for minority party politics in Washington. Democrats sat gleefully on the sidelines as the Tea Party made the speakership of John Boehner a sustained stay in purgatory, but the minority party seems to have a found a reason for some hell-raising themselves.
The House disruption comes just a little over a week after some House Democrats walked out of a moment of silence for the victims of the Orlando shooting, before other Democrats shouted down Speaker Ryan with “Where’s the bill?” and “No leadership.”
Senate Democrats garnered national headlines with a 15-hour filibuster last week led by Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.). It worked and a few days later four bills were brought up for a vote and swiftly failed.
The fact that they were voted on at all has emboldened Democrats who claim casting the votesalone represent an election year victory because vulnerable Republicans are finally getting pressured to reassess their resistance to tweaking the nation’s gun laws.
It wasn’t too long ago that the ranks of Democrats were filled with anti-gun control members, but in the wake of the San Bernardino shooting and historic slaughter at the Orlando LGBT club, those holdout members have become fewer and the party seems more unified than ever in its effort to pass gun-control.
“I think this is truly exceptional and reflects the public mood,” Sen. Murphy said, after leaving the House floor in a show of solidarity with his colleagues in the lower chamber. “The only thing that we can’t do now is be silent and I’m glad that my former colleagues in the House are stepping up in a big way.”
Still, many Republicans are scoffing at the Democrats summer of gun protests.
“You couldn’t print [my thoughts],” Rep. Tom Marino (R-Pa.) told The Daily Beast when asked what he thinks of the Democratic sit-in on the House floor. “It’s unfortunate that it gets to something like that. If it’s orderly it’s one thing, but chanting, carrying on. I think it does something to the system, decorum.”
“I think what should be done pursuant to Orlando is Obama should take more of an aggressive, excuse the pun, aim at the terrorists,” Marino added. “If we would have set them straight a long ago overseas who knows where we would be at right now. We could have taken care of ISIS a long time ago when they were leaving Syria to come into Iraq. Remember that was the JV team.”
Other Republicans argue the floor protest is reminiscent of when House Republicans stormed the House floor during the August recess in 2008 to protest the nation’s high energy prices.
“Can’t really be critical, we did the same thing in August of 2008 for a whole month,” Rep. Michael Burgess (R-Texas) told The Daily Beast. “Can’t really criticize it because I’ve had my own version of a temper tantrum.”
But the House was in recess when Republicans stormed the floor back then. Democrats showed the minority party can do it while in session, which tilts the balance of power in the lower chamber.
It remains to be seen if Speaker Ryan will relent and bring any gun bill up for a vote before Congress gavels out for the July Fourth recess. Democrats say their hopes are high, especially after what happened in the upper chamber.
After all, the Senate filibuster not only produced votes on bills that may not have seen the light of day, it also put Republicans and Democrats at the negotiating table, which has produced a new bill sponsored by Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and a bipartisan mix of eight of her colleagues.
The legislation is seen as a limited effort to keep guns out of the hands of terrorists by keeping them out of the hands of people on the federal no-fly and so-called selectee lists.
The irony is that in the past Lewis, himself was once erroneously put on the no-fly list. While the NRA argues the new effort is unconstitutional because it may ensnare people like Lewis, Democrats rebuff the claim.
“Well, of course it isn’t a perfect system. But let’s look at the argument here: ‘If the government can make a mistake identifying a terrorist than we shouldn’t deny weapons to any person suspected of terrorism.’ That’s the NRA position,” Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) told The Daily Beast. “It’s just upside down. We have to start with the presumption that if the government can make a mistake we can correct it, but let’s keep America safe.”