WASHINGTON (AP) — A drained and dwindling group of Democrats, some draped in blankets and toting pillows, carried their remarkable House floor sit-in past daybreak Thursday, disrupting the business of Congress in the wake of the Orlando shooting rampage with demands for gun-control votes in an extraordinary scene of protest broadcast live to the world.
Unyielding Republicans who control the chamber branded the move a publicity stunt and summarily adjourned the chamber at around 3:15 a.m. EDT until after the Fourth of July. By 6:30 a.m. Thursday — 19 hours after the protest commenced — some 16 Democrats remained including Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, giving speeches that mixed victory declarations with vows to never back down in their drive to curb firearm violence.
“While the Americans don’t always expect us to win, they do expect us to fight,” said Rep. Al Green, D-Texas, as dawn broke and the few remaining lawmakers sat in a paper-cluttered chamber beneath empty visitor galleries. “We demonstrated to the American why we can’t get votes on common sense safety measures.”
When Republicans streamed to the exits hours earlier, Democrats remained on the House floor, shouting “No bill no break!” and waving papers with the names of gun victims written in black. Rep. Maxine Waters of California said she was ready to stay “until Hell freezes over.”
With a crowd cheering them on from outside the Capitol and many more following the theatrics on social media, Democrats declared success in dramatizing the argument for action to stem gun violence.
“Just because they cut and run in the dark of night, just because they have left doesn’t mean we are taking no for an answer,” said Pelosi, D-Calif.
Republicans fiercely resisted the Democratic pressure, saying their colleagues had accomplished nothing other than disrupting the business of the House to score political points. House Speaker Paul Ryan called it “a publicity stunt.”
Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., who had participated in the civil rights sit-ins in the South in the 1960s, said Democrats had “crossed one bridge.” He added, “We have other bridges to cross.” He said Democrats “made a down payment on ending gun violence” in America.
Pressure had been building on both sides of the Capitol in the wake of the shooting rampage at a Florida gay nightclub earlier this month that killed 49 people and injured 53 others. The assailant also died in the incident. The mass shooting followed similar tragic incidents over the past years including the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut.
The agitation for action caused a Senate filibuster last week and led to the chaos on the House floor that lasted well into Thursday.
At one point, Democrats and Republicans nearly came to blows.
Republican Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas approached the Democrats and yelled, “Radical Islam!” Democratic Rep. Corrine Brown of Florida started yelling back at him. The two came within inches of each other, both yelling.
Lawmakers from both parties separated the two.
The burst of nocturnal activity included recorded votes on some other issues such as the Zika virus. The spectacle captured the attention of a Washington gridlocked on guns despite the slaughter in Orlando. Senate Democrats undertook a nearly 15-hour filibuster last week in fighting for the same cause.
House Republicans used their prerogatives as the majority party to muscle through a partisan bill funding the Zika crisis with no time for debate, overruling Democrat’s objections and then moving to adjourn the House into next month as Democrats cried “Shame, Shame!”
Republicans shut off the cameras in the House gallery throughout most of the protest, but Democrats used their cellphones to capture the action, and C-SPAN carried the feeds live in an unprecedented move.
Ryan, R-Wisc., said the bills pushed by Democrats, to expand background checks and keep people on the no-fly list from getting guns, would take away people’s constitutional rights and deprive them of due process, and he noted similar legislation was already rejected in the Senate earlier in the week.
The protest began around 11:30 a.m. Wednesday, unfolding on the House floor with little advance warning from the Democrats.
By evening, 168 House Democrats — out of 188 — and 34 Senate Democrats joined the protest, according to the House minority leader’s office. One after another, they spoke of the need for gun control and talked of constituents who had been killed.
Scattered around the House floor were signs reading “Disarm Hate.” Visitors watched from the galleries. A crowd of several hundred gun control advocates gathered outside the Capitol and cheered as Democrats addressed them.
The sit-in — in which Lewis played a leading role — had the look of a 1960s-style protest, as some lawmakers sat on the floor, others in their seats.
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 speech after speech after Pelosi, then the House speaker, sent lawmakers bolting to their August recess. Pelosi at that time had ordered the cameras turned off.
C-SPAN, a cable and satellite network that provides continual coverage of House and Senate floor proceedings, does not control the cameras. They’re run on authorization by legislative leaders. Although the cameras were turned off Wednesday, lawmakers relied on social media to transmit video, using Facebook, Twitter and Periscope.
C-SPAN broadcast live video streamed on Periscope and Facebook from lawmakers’ accounts. Democrats posted the Capitol’s main telephone number, which was overwhelmed, and urged constituents to call and request a vote. They also encouraged tweeting under the hashtag #NoBillNoBreak.