WASHINGTON — Rebellious Democrats shut down the House’s legislative work on Wednesday, staging a sit-in on the House floor and refusing to leave until they secured a vote on gun control measures before lawmakers’ weeklong break.
Exasperated Republicans were forced to recess while cutting off cameras that showed the protest. But in an unprecedented step, C-SPAN used live video feeds from one lawmaker’s Periscope account and another’s Facebook page to transmit words and images from the House.
Nearly 100 Democrats led by Georgia Rep. John Lewis demanded a vote on measures to expand background checks and block gun purchases by some suspected terrorists in the aftermath of last week’s massacre in Orlando, Florida, that killed 49 people in a gay nightclub.
“No bill, no break,” shouted Democrats, who demanded that Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., keep the House in session through its planned break next week to vote on gun legislation.
Democrats accused Republicans of political cowardice by failing to schedule a vote.
“Are they more afraid than the children at Sandy Hook?” asked Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., referring to the 2012 shooting that killed 26 people, including 20 elementary school children, in Newtown, Connecticut. “What is so scary about having a vote?”
Lewis, a veteran civil rights leader revered by Democrats, said action on gun violence is long overdue.
“We have lost hundreds and thousands of innocent people to gun violence,” Lewis said as he urged fellow Democrats to stand with him in the area near the podium, known as the well.
In an email titled, “Democrat Publicity Stunt,” Ryan spokeswoman AshLee Strong said, “the House cannot operate without members following the rules of the institution, so the House has recessed subject to the call of the chair.”
The protest began around 11:30 a.m., interrupted briefly when Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, tried to start the House’s work at noon. The customary prayer and pledge of allegiance went ahead, but Poe was forced to recess the House when dozens of Democrats refused to leave the well.
By midafternoon, the protest was still going on.
Congress remains gridlocked over gun control, a divide even more pronounced in an election year. The sit-in had the feel of a 1960s-style protest, as some lawmakers sat on the floor, others in their seats as speakers vowed to stay in the chamber as long as necessary to force a vote.
Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., said he was proud of his fellow Democrats and offered a rebuke to Ryan and other GOP leaders, who were absent from the chamber most of the day.
“You can run, but you can’t hide,” Rush said to cheers from his Democratic colleagues.
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 speeches after then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi sent the House on its August recess. Pelosi ordered the cameras turned off.
Republicans ultimately forced the drilling provision to be attached to a stopgap spending bill.
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 used Periscope and Facebook video supplied by lawmakers.
Rep. John Larson, D-Conn., said lawmakers were “calling for the simple dignity of a vote.” Joining the protest were more than a dozen Democratic senators, including Minority Leader Harry Reid, and Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Chris Murphy, D-Conn., who had waged a nearly 15-hour filibuster last week to force votes in the Senate on gun legislation. Those votes failed on Monday night.
Ryan said Wednesday that House leaders were “waiting to see what the Senate does before proceeding” on gun legislation, including a possible compromise that Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, is seeking.
Larson and other Democrats cited polls showing broad public support for expanding background checks for firearms purchases and blocking suspected terrorists from buying guns.
Pelosi, now the minority leader, said the House needs to act on gun legislation, rather than continually hold moments of silence in memory of victims of gun violence.
“We truly believe that if there were a vote that we would win the vote, because 85 to 90 percent of the American people … support responsible background checks legislation,” Pelosi said.
She later told reporters Democrats would sit “until we have a bill … We’re in for the long haul.”
White House press secretary Josh Earnest said House Democrats were “showing the kind of frustration and even anger that people around the country have” about congressional inaction on gun control.