WASHINGTON – Democrats took over the House floor on Wednesday in an attempt to force votes on gun-control proposals, holding their sit-in into Thursday morning more 12 hours after it began.
Many House Democrats said they plan to stay in the chamber all night – even if Republicans decided to shut off the lights and the air-conditioning – to call for congressional action following the recent mass shooting in Orlando.
“I don’t know how many of us or all of us are going to stay,” said Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Illinois. “But my plan is I have a blankey.”
The protest started early in the day when a group of House Democrats chanting “no bill, no vote” shouted down Republican leaders’ efforts to gavel the House into session around 11:30 a.m., and then prevented the GOP from conducting regular business for most of the day.
Around 10 p.m., House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, banged the gavel and called the House back into session for a vote to override President Barack Obama’s veto of a measure that would scale back new regulations for financial advisers. Democrats voted to sustain the veto while continuing to chant and protest. Further votes were possible early Thursday morning.
The vote was an attempt by Republican leaders to show the House could do its business despite the Democrats’ protest. But it was held as Democrats sang “We Shall Overcome,” switching the words of the second verse to “we shall pass a bill.”
Following the vote, Democrats made clear they would continue their protest.
“We can win, and we will win,” they chanted at one point.
Tensions began to rise late in the evening with Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, yelling at Democrats to talk about radical Islam, a reference to the Orlando shooter’s pledge of solidarity with ISIS, while Democrats shouted back that Republicans should hold a vote on gun-control proposals.
At one point, Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, stepped between Gohmert and the Democrats, saying later he was afraid a physical fight would break out.
Outside the Capitol, protesters gathered, and Rep. John Lewis, D-Georgia, spoke to them about 10:45 p.m. on the Capitol lawn.
“By standing here tonight, by standing with us, you’re bearing witness to the truth. You must never ever give up or give in or give out,” he said. “We got to stop the violence and do something about the proliferation of guns.”
Democrats gathered in the well of the chamber throughout the afternoon and evening with members going in and out to lend their support. The group grew to about 100 members at times, and some members of the Senate joined in the protest as well.
Democrats are demanding votes on gun-control measures that would prevent terrorism suspects from buying firearms and expand background checks. Several members also spoke in support of banning assault weapons.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California, pledged that Democrats would stay on the floor until they got a vote.
But in an appearance on CNN, Ryan showed little inclination to meet Democrats’ demands, accusing them of staging “a publicity stunt” and criticizing them for demanding votes on “a bill that already died” in the Senate this week.
“People have a guaranteed right to Second Amendment rights,” Ryan said. “We’re not going to take away a person’s constitutionally guaranteed rights without due process.”
Republicans also plan to schedule a vote as soon as Thursday on legislation that would provide funding to combat the Zika virus.
GOP leaders hope a vote on an important public health issue will further show they won’t be deterred by the sit-in from taking care of legislative business, this time on a major public health issue. Democrats oppose the Republican-crafted Zika spending bill because it includes cuts to other programs, including the Affordable Care Act.
During the sit-in, the cameras normally used for C-SPAN broadcasts, which are controlled by the House, were turned off, and so were the microphones, leading some members to jokingly argue about who should take the next turn to speak based on who had the loudest voice. While it is against House rules to shoot photos or video on the floor, C-SPAN carried live footage of the sit-in via the livestreams from members’ smartphones.
The House cameras were turned back on at 10 p.m. when the House held the vote on the investor rule as Democrats continued to protest.
Throughout the day, Democrats one by one marched to a lectern in the well of the House to decry the GOP’s refusal to bring gun-control measures to the floor.
Apart from the intensity of the speeches, the House floor had the atmosphere of an open-mic night, as about a dozen Democrats sat in the well, several dozen more occupied the seats around them and others trickled in and out.
The idea for the sit-in began with 15 Democratic members who gathered in the office of Lewis Tuesday night, according to Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Kentucky. Initially, they had intended to keep it a secret from leaders.
But the plan leaked out during the House Democrats’ meeting Wednesday morning - and Pelosi then endorsed the initiative, Yarmuth said, but there were no rules or strategy beyond that.
“We wanted to keep it a little organic,” Yarmuth said. Grinning, he added: “It’s cool.”