Democratic lawmakers on Thursday afternoon ended the dramatic protest they had staged on the House floor for more than 25 hours, while pledging to continue to find ways to pressure Republicans to hold votes on gun-control measures.
Tired of what they viewed as a publicity stunt by Democrats, Republican early Thursday morning formally adjourned for the long-scheduled Fourth of July recess.
But Democrats said they would continue to press the issue, both on the House floor and in districts across the country under the belief that they finally have momentum behind putting in place some restrictions on the sale of guns following the recent mass shooting in Orlando.
“Now we have to take the actions which will enable us to meet our goal, which is to win the vote,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
Pelosi declined to say specifically what type of future protests Democrats plan to employ.
“You’ll see more spontaneity as to the form things will take,” she told reporters Thursday afternoon.
Democrats began a sit-in on the House floor Wednesday morning to pressure Republicans to hold votes on proposals that would prevent suspected terrorists from purchasing guns and expand background checks for firearm purchases. For more than 24 hours, lawmakers remained in the well of the House chamber, some wrapped in blankets and gripping paper coffee cups early Thursday while excoriating Republicans for not taking action to address gun violence.
Shortly after 1 p.m. Thursday, Democrats left the floor and marched outside down the House steps to link up with more than 100 cheering supporters, vowing to press ahead. Pelosi, joined by Reps. John B. Larson (D-Conn.) and John Lewis (D-Ga.), two of the key leaders of the sit-in, urged the activists to keep demanding action on gun control.
“The continuation of the message will not be possible without all of you,” Pelosi told the crowd.
Lewis, a civil rights icon, recounted meeting the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as a teenager, saying he has learned it is better to love and ensure that no person is left behind.
“We’ve got to work together,” Lewis said. “We’ve got to vote like we’ve never, ever voted before.”
The crowd then broke out into several verses of the protest song “We Shall Overcome.”
Moments earlier, Pelosi’s leadership team had gathered nearly 100 Democrats in the well of the House chamber, surrounding Lewis as he brought to a close the marathon protest that he had begun with just a few lawmakers at his side the day before. Lewis thanked several of his colleagues who helped craft and engineer the plan, hugging Rep. Katherine Clark (D-Mass.), one of the architects.
House GOP leaders made clear they will not give in to Democrats’ demands.
Addressing reporters at a Thursday news conference, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) fiercely criticized the Democratic sit-in, saying it undermined the House as an institution.
“We can disagree on policy, but we do so within the bounds of order and respect for the system, otherwise it all falls apart,” he said. “We are not going to allow stunts like this to stop us from carrying out the people’s business.”
Ryan sharpened his attack on Democrats, repeating his accusation that the sit-in was a “publicity stunt” but also accusing them of engaging in a “fundraising scheme.” He waved an emailed solicitation issued by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee that cited the protest.
“Look at what we’re doing on the House floor! Send us money!” Ryan said, mocking the solicitation. “If this is not a political stunt, then why are they trying to raise money off of this, off of a tragedy.”
Buoyed by the attention the sit-in received, some veteran Democratic lawmakers said the effort was unparalleled and expressed optimism that Republicans would eventually have to hold a vote on gun-control proposals. The episode took on the cast of a civil rights sit-in, led by Lewis, the nearly 30-year House veteran whose blood was spilled during civil rights marches of the 1960s.
“Thank you for getting in trouble — good trouble,” Lewis told colleagues Wednesday night. “Sometimes by sitting down, by sitting in, you’re standing up.”
Later, the Georgia Democrat addressed about 150 supporters, who cheered on Democrats from the West Lawn outside the Capitol.
“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,” Lewis said. “We’ve got to stop the violence and do something about the proliferation of guns.”
House Democrats were responding to anger over the failure of lawmakers to pass any kind of gun-control measure — or in the House, even vote on one. Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.) described a “tipping point” where “people are sick of moments of silence” in the House and elsewhere.
The episode poses a big test for Ryan’s fledgling speakership. Previous speakers have had trouble controlling their own caucus, and Ryan has done better, so far, on that score. But it’s unclear what kind of effect the images of Democrats seizing the floor, waving placards with the names of gun victims and delivering emotional speeches will have on voters, with whom lawmakers will spend time during the recess.
“What are the consequences?” Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), former chairman of the House Democrats’ campaign arm, asked on MSNBC, referring to congressional inaction. “They’re going to have to go home to their districts . . . and explain to their constituents why they weren’t courageous enough to even bring a bill to a vote.”
Seemingly exasperated, Ryan had dubbed the guerrilla protests a “publicity stunt” on Wednesday night before gaveling in the House around 10 p.m. for an unrelated vote.
Several hours later, the House GOP moved ahead with its package to fund the Zika virus response and moved to adjourn the chamber until July 5. Republican members then headed home while Democrats remained on the floor throughout the night before deciding early Thursday afternoon it was time to call it quits after more than 24 hours.
House Democrats are seeking votes on two bills that they say would prevent suspected terrorists from buying firearms, similar to legislation rejected Monday by the Senate. But House Republicans have declined to hold votes on gun-control measures since retaking control of the chamber in 2011, allowing only a vote in 2013 to renew an expiring ban on plastic firearms.
Following the 2012 mass shooting of schoolchildren in Newtown, Conn., a bipartisan gun-control measure was drafted in the Senate, but it failed to earn enough Republican votes to advance in April 2013.
Some of the bills rejected by senators this week mirrored the proposed gun controls of three years ago. A bipartisan group led by Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) has been promised a vote on a potential compromise, and the group was working this week to secure enough support.
The House Democratic sit-in began at 11:29 a.m. Wednesday and included more than 100 lawmakers who squatted on the floor of the chamber or sat watching as colleagues recounted incidents of gun violence from their home districts. At several points they waved signs with the names of gun violence victims or sang protest songs such as “We Shall Overcome.”
Television cameras normally used to broadcast chamber proceedings went dark for most of the day, keeping with rules prohibiting live broadcasts when the House is in recess. Scrambling to fulfill its duties as a nonpartisan chronicler of congressional affairs, C-SPAN — and other broadcasters later in the day — relied instead on video feeds from the smartphones of several lawmakers, who used Facebook and Periscope to beam the speeches to the world.
Throughout the day and into the night, Democrats claimed they’d marked a tipping point in the emotionally fraught gun-control debate, while Republicans dismissed their moves as an unprecedented, indecorous political scheme.
In a heated scene, Ryan seized the gavel at 10 p.m. Wednesday to call a vote on an unrelated measure as Democrats began shouting “No bill! No break!” and “Shame!” Ryan persisted by quickly yielding time to a Republican colleague who yielded back, allowing Ryan to launch a series of votes.
As members of both parties cast votes, Democrats continued shouting and waving signs.
Later, Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Tex.) came to the floor and yelled at Democrats, telling them that they should talk instead about “radical Islam” — a reference to Omar Mateen, the shooter in the June 12 mass killing of patrons at a gay nightclub in Orlando. During the massacre, Mateen pledged solidarity with the Islamic State.
Democrats shouted back at Gohmert, saying that Republicans should hold a vote on gun-control proposals. At one point, Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) stepped in between Gohmert and some Democrats, saying later that he was afraid their shouting would result in a physical fight.
The idea for the sit-in began with 15 Democratic members who gathered in Lewis’s office on Tuesday night, according to Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.).
Initially, the group wanted to keep the plan a secret from leaders, but word leaked during the House Democrats’ weekly meeting Wednesday morning. When Pelosi found out that Lewis was formally inviting people to join the protest, she 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.”
Apart from the intensity of the speeches, the House floor had the atmosphere of an open-mic night.
The sit-in turned somber at times. At one point, Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) offered a prayer. Other members sang the spiritual “We Shall Not Be Moved.” Late Wednesday, Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) emotionally recounted her personal history with gun violence. Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Tex.), who was one of those using his phone to live-stream the proceedings, told colleagues that the sit-in marked the proudest moment of his two terms in Congress.
Mike Debonis and Paul Kane contributed to this report.