House GOP Thwarts Sit-In With Zika Vote, Recess
House Republicans, in an effort to cut the legs out beneath a daylong Democratic protest, voted to pass $1.1 billion in funding to combat the Zika virus at just after 3 a.m. Thursday morning. They then adjourned the House and departed Washington until July 5.
House Democrats had taken over the chamber floor Wednesday in an unprecedented sit-in to protest the lack of votes on gun control. They stayed for more than 16 hours, speaking one after another about the need for legislation to prevent those on the “no-fly” list from purchasing guns.
For the vast majority of the day, they successfully blocked Republicans from conducting any legislative business and garnered significant attention to their efforts. Their main message – amplified by “No bill, no break” chants – was to prevent the chamber from going into recess for the Fourth of July holiday without conducting the gun control votes.
The protest came to a head around 10 p.m. Wednesday when Republicans scheduled votes unrelated to the gun measures. As Speaker Paul Ryan gaveled the House in for the vote, Democrats in the chamber, while holding signs with the names of gun victims on them, chanted over him. They then loudly booed the speaker as he stepped down from the dais and chanted “shame” over and over again, the echoes deafening in the chamber; members of the public in the gallery joined in. At one point, the Democrats stood together and sang “We shall overcome,” changing the lyrics of the second verse to “We shall pass a bill someday.”
“Democrats can continue to talk, but the reality is that they have no end-game strategy,” said AshLee Strong, a spokeswoman for Speaker Paul Ryan. “The Senate has already defeated the measure they’re calling for. The House is focused on eliminating terrorists, not constitutional rights of law-abiding citizens. And no stunts on the floor will change that.”
Despite previous failures to pass related measures, the Senate is scheduled to vote Thursday on a bipartisan proposal – an amendment to a funding bill – that would prevent individuals on the “no-fly” or the “selectee” list from purchasing a gun. (The latter designation applies to people singled out for extra security screening before being allowed to board an airplane.) Anyone on the lists would be able to appeal the decision.
The House vote on Zika leaves that legislation in a somewhat uncertain position, as Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid and Sen. Chuck Schumer came out against it Wednesday evening.
Though House Democrats had been planning to highlight their push for gun control measures in the wake of the Orlando shootings – including using social and traditional media, grassroots efforts and delay tactics on the chamber floor – the sit-in was an organic move by members that came together Wednesday morning.
Rep. John Lewis, a longtime lawmaker and civil rights icon, led some of his colleagues in beginning the protest at around 11:30 a.m. Wednesday.
"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. "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. This is the time. Now is the time to get in the way. The time to act is now. We will be silent no more."
At noon, as previously scheduled, Republicans attempted to gavel the chamber back into session to proceed with the business of the day, but Democrats refused to comply with the rules, shouting in protest, and Republicans gaveled back out of session three minutes later. From that point, the chamber remained out of session for 10 hours.
While the protest started with just several lawmakers, more and more Democrats joined the group as the day went on. Many sat on the floor in the well of the chamber, the area in front of the speaker’s dais, and others crowded around, either standing or sitting in their desks. An aide estimated that more than 160 Democrats ultimately joined the effort on the floor, plus more than 30 Democratic senators who crossed the Capitol to stand in solidarity with their House colleagues.
The first senator to do so was Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy, who waged a filibuster last week to force the upper chamber to take votes on gun control measures, all of which failed earlier this week. While House rules don’t allow for filibusters, multiple members said their sit-in, which was a violation of House rules, amounted to the same thing.
“It all comes down to the same thing,” Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi told reporters during a briefing in her office while the sit-in continued. “People are tired of moments of silence. They refuse to just accept the fact that we’ll have a moment of silence and it’ll be indicative of the silence that we’ll have to follow."
Several lawmakers said Wednesday’s action was the proudest moment of their service in Congress, including some who had been around for decades.
“I’ve never been more proud to be a member of this body,” said Rep. Charlie Rangel, who has served in the House since 1971 and is retiring after this year. Rep. Bobby Rush, who has served for 23 years, echoed that sentiment.
Many of the speeches directly called out Republicans, and specifically Speaker Ryan, for what Democrats said was a lack of courage and conviction for not bringing up the gun control measures. Rep. Jerry Nadler said the House was “drenched in blood.” Rep. Anna Eshoo said the inaction was a “stain” on the House, and that the lack of votes is “killing us.”
“Speaker Ryan, you can run but you can’t hide,” Rush said. “Republicans, you can run but you can’t hide. There’s no hiding place that will keep you from doing the right thing about the murder and the crime and the killings that go on in our nation today."
Ryan, however, dismissed the sit-in.
“This is a publicity stunt,” Ryan said in an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer. “They’re trying to get you to ask me those questions for publicity's sake. This isn’t trying to come up with a solution to a problem. This is trying to get attention.”
Ryan also pointed out that when Republicans held protests on the House floor eight years ago, then-Speaker Pelosi shut the lights off in the chamber, but Republicans continued to protest.
Ryan and Republican leaders, attempting to determine a path forward with Democrats occupying the floor, held an unscheduled meeting with rank-and-file lawmakers about seven hours into the sit-in to discuss their options. GOP lawmakers expressed frustration with the Democrats’ tactics and vowed to push ahead with their own agenda.
“We disagree with their protest and what they’re doing,” said Rep. Pete Sessions. “We believe they have done this ill-advisedly. We believe that the American people will see that what they’ve really done is wrong. We’re going to get our work done."
Rep. Ann Wagner echoed this: “We are going to conduct the will of the people and conduct ourselves as an adult Congress that is actually going to uphold, I think, the norms, the customs, the rules of the House. If the minority chooses not to do that, that’s their choice.”
While the votes at the end of the evening were covered live on television, the vast majority of the protest – and the time in-between each vote – wasn’t because once Republicans gaveled the chamber into a recess the cameras were turned off, per House rules. The House controls the cameras, as opposed to C-SPAN, the channel that airs action on the House floor and which did capture the start of the protest prior to the session’s end.
Democrats got creative with their efforts to make sure their sit-in was noticed despite the House TV feed going dark. Dozens of members took pictures of the action on the floor – which is against House rules – and several broadcast the speeches live using the Periscope phone app or Facebook Live. C-SPAN eventually began airing live feeds from members’ cellphones. Tweets from Reps. Eric Swalwell and Scott Peters with live feeds of the sit-in were viewed more than 1 million times Wednesday, according to a Twitter spokesperson.
Pelosi said the protesters were prepared to stay on the House floor until the moment they received a vote on gun control measures. Pelosi suggested late Wednesday afternoon there could be some minimal actions on the floor during the recess next week, and that members would continue the effort back in their districts.
Minority Whip Steny Hoyer vowed to continue the gun-control efforts when the House returns in July, though he didn’t specify whether Democrats would stage another sit-in.
“You bet your sweet life when the House comes back into session, this fight will be continued,” Hoyer said shortly before 4 a.m.