Turmoil in the House as Dems stage sit-in
WASHINGTON — Several dozen lawmakers, led by Representatives Katherine Clark of Massachusetts and John Lewis, a longtime civil rights leader, disrupted the US House Wednesday by staging a sit-in on the floor of the chamber to demand that the Republican leadership allow votes on gun legislation.
The protest — over bills blocked by House leaders that would expand background checks and attempt to prevent suspected terrorists from buying guns — came more than a week after the Orlando nightclub massacre, the country’s worst mass shooting in modern history with 49 victims.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, the chamber’s top Republican, dismissed the sit-in as a “publicity stunt’’ in a CNN interview and said the House GOP had no intention of passing measures that he said would erode gun ownership rights.
His position seemed likely to keep the standoff going as the evening wore on Wednesday. At 10 p.m., Ryan gaveled the chamber into session, and Republicans proceeded to vote on unrelated legislation, ignoring the Democrats even as they stood in the well of the House holding signs and loudly chanting, “No bill, no break!’’
Outside the House chambers, a crowd swelled in the Capitol plaza into the early morning.
Democratic representatives said they were prepared to occupy the chamber until Friday, when the House is scheduled to adjourn for more than week in observance of Independence Day.It follows last week’s filibuster by Senate Democrats over gun legislation and is another sign the party senses an opening as public opinion shifts, while acknowledging a tough road ahead to actually pass the bill.
The unusual scene of House members, dressed in suits and skirts, sitting with their ankles or legs crossed on the blue carpet of the House of Representatives, unfolded shortly before noon Wednesday.
“I brought my suitcase. I have snacks and a toothbrush in my purse with me on the floor,” Clark said in a telephone interview. “I’m committed to being here as long as we remain in session.’’
House members were joined by a few Senate Democrats, including Elizabeth Warren and Edward Markey of Massachusetts, presidential candidate Bernie Sanders of Vermont, and Charles Schumer of New York.
Republicans, who control the House, declared a recess as the sit-in began and immediately cut off the C-SPAN video feed showing the House floor. Representative Scott Peters of California responded by streaming the speeches live on Periscope. C-SPAN circumvented the blackout by broadcasting the feeds of Peters and other lawmakers from Periscope and Facebook, drawing tens of thousands of viewers.
A spokeswoman for Ryan, AshLee Strong, said in a statement that the House recessed because it “cannot operate without members following the rules of the institution.”
Strong did not immediately respond to Democrats’ complaints of censorship by GOP leadership. C-SPAN, by agreement with the House leadership, does not have control of when the cameras are turned on. As it streamed live Facebook video of the sit-in captured by Democratic lawmakers, C-SPAN displayed a message at the bottom of the screen: “ALERT: HOUSE CAMERAS ARE NOT PERMITTED TO SHOW SIT-IN.’’
Howard Mortman, a C-SPAN spokesman, said the blackout would have impeded the “basic core of our mission,” which is to “show what’s happening in Congress,” were it not for the social media feeds.
Though the C-SPAN cutoff highlighted the cable network’s restrictive access agreements for coverage of congressional debates, the goal of the House Democrats was to focus on gun control in the wake of the Orlando shooting.
Inaction on gun legislation, Democrats said, is costing lives.
“We don’t have a filibuster procedure in the House, but we are going to disrupt the proceedings the best we can to show that this issue is critical to the American people and we have to act,’’ Clark said. “Let’s get ourselves on record. Let’s have the debate, and let’s try to start and craft a solution.”
Clark, on the House floor earlier, ticked off the numerous mass shootings in recent years: First-graders and their teachers shot in their elementary school. Students and their professors shot in their college classrooms. Parishioners shot after Bible study and fellowship in their church. Social workers and disabled clients shot at holiday party. A congresswoman shot while meeting with constituents.
“Many of our sanctuaries have been violated by gun violence. It is a grisly routine,” Clark said on the House floor. “Let’s vote. Let’s put it out there for people to judge.”
Clark last week drew criticism from Republicans when she and a handful of other Democrats walked out of a moment of silence held in memory of the Orlando victims.
“These moments of silence we have is the only action that we take,” Clark said in the Globe interview Wednesday. “It should only be the beginning, but we never get to the debates and the votes.”
“Rise up, Democrats. Rise up, America. This cannot stand,” said Representative John Larson of Connecticut, where 20 children and six adults were killed in a Newtown elementary school shooting in 2012.
Lewis, a 15-term congressman from Georgia and major leader of the civil rights movement who had organized sit-ins to protest segregation across the South, tweeted on Wednesday, “We will use nonviolence to fight gun violence and inaction.”
In a letter to House Speaker Ryan, Clark and Lewis urged the Republican leader to keep the House in session through its planned July Fourth recess to debate and vote on the gun violence legislation.
Ryan said during his weekly press conference that he was waiting for the Senate to advance a compromise gun bill before proceeding in the House.
The Senate, following a nearly 15-hour filibuster led by Democrat Christopher Murphy of Connecticut, defeated similar legislation Monday.
Joining Clark in Wednesday’s sit-in were all of Massachusetts’ all-Democratic House delegation: Stephen Lynch, Richard Neal, Michael Capuano, Jim McGovern, Bill Keating, Niki Tsongas, Joe Kennedy, and Seth Moulton.
Clark acknowledged that even if the House were to vote on the proposed measures, they are unlikely to pass.
“That’s not where we are politically,” she said. “But we have to start taking those votes and recording where members of Congress stand on these issues.”