The calls to do something about the latest outburst of gun violence started over the weekend.
Democratic lawmakers wanted to make a dramatic stand over the refusal of House Republicans to put a gun control measure to a vote following the mass murder of 49 people in Orlando.
Reps. John Larson (D-Conn.) and Katherine Clark (D-Mass.), in particular, started picking their colleagues’ brains for something bigger, something bold, according to a handful of Democrats familiar with the origins of the raucous sit-in that started Wednesday on the House floor.
Finally, by late Tuesday, Democrats had landed the support of the one man with the moral standing to stand up, or in this case, sit down, for what they believed in: John Lewis (D-Ga.), the nearly 30-year House veteran whose blood was spilled during civil rights marches of the 1960’s.
Shortly before lunchtime Wednesday, Lewis and a dozen or so Democrats arrived in the well of the House, where some members deliver speeches and otherwise serves as a bipartisan mixing place during votes.
The Democrats sat down to announce their plan to use a sit-in to take control of the chamber in order to demand at least one vote on legislation to prevent those on the terrorist watch list from purchasing firearms.
Their numbers grew throughout the day, and by nighttime, more than 100 Democrats had taken over the floor, using their iPhones to broadcast the events on Periscope and Facebook because technically the House was not in session as GOP leaders pondered how to respond to the guerrilla tactics.
“Sitting there on the floor, I felt like I were reliving my life all over again. During the ’60s the sit-ins started with three or four people, and they spread like wildfire. This will spread,” Lewis told reporters late Wednesday, after taking a break from the House to speak to a group of gun-control advocates gathered outside the Capitol.
Despite the agitation, it doesn’t look like Democrats will compel House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) to hold any gun-related votes this week or during the summer.
Ryan sparked fury from Democrats when, in an interview on CNN, he labeled the protests a “publicity stunt,” When he left the rostrum during a series of unrelated late-night votes, Ryan received a volley of shouts of “Shame!” from Democrats.
That Lewis and Ryan have become the face of such starkly opposing sides is a remarkable twist, as Ryan has often spoken highly of the 76-year-old icon. They have marched together over the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., in the annual commemoration of the seminal march in 1965 where Lewis and other civil rights activists were beaten.
As midnight Wednesday approached, the still new-to-his-job speaker devoted his time on the House floor to talking to the most conservative members of his own caucus — not trying to compromise with Democrats or talk with Lewis. House GOP leaders were considering adjourning the chamber until after July 4.
Before the Democratic House takeover, Ryan and Lewis had a good relationship.
Ryan and Lewis served together for many years on the House Ways and Means Committee, which Ryan previously chaired, and when he walked onto the floor last October to accept the speaker’s gavel, Ryan made sure to embrace his friend Lewis in front of several senior members of the Congressional Black Caucus. Lewis took the stage in late February as Ryan presided over the awarding of the Congressional Gold Medal to the “Foot Soldiers” who marched in Selma in 1965.
In a February interview, Lewis called Ryan “sincere” and “very smart”, someone who President Obama and Democrats “can do business with”.
“He’s a thinker, and I think he’s gonna work very hard to try to bring us all together,” Lewis told CNBC.
Larson, Clark and other Democrats knew they needed Lewis because of his public standing, and that he would bring along with him the support of the CBC, whose members deal with more gun-related violence than the average lawmaker.
Some Democrats, who requested anonymity to discuss the planning of the sit-in, also said the movement grew out of worries that their leadership team was headed toward a similar ritual in the wake of the latest shooting: a round of outraged press conferences, which would have ended with no result and no high-profile event to truly focus the public on the issue.
It’s a similar fear expressed by Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who along with Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) led a 15-hour filibuster last week on the Senate floor to demand votes on gun-control bills.
The two first-term senators spoke early last week and decided that doing something dramatic might draw attention to the issue, and that the usual path Democratic leaders took — arguing for amendment votes that often would lead to deadlock — was not enough following the latest mass shooting.
House Democrats, inspired by Murphy, began placing calls to one another after a conference call convened by Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.). They were not rebelling against their leaders, but they wanted this to be a plan that came from the rank-and-file, from the bottom up.
Late Tuesday, about 15 Democrats huddled in Lewis’s office, affirming their plans for the unusual demonstration to come, according to Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.). That followed an earlier meeting in Larson’s office.
At the Wednesday morning Democratic meeting, Pelosi gave her full-throated endorsement to the idea, Yarmuth said. Not long after — on a day Ryan was trying to highlight a new proposal to replace Obamacare — Lewis spearheaded the Democratic protest.
“Yes, it’s unusual, and as a matter of fact, it may be unprecedented. In my memory, I’ve never seen exactly this happen,” Hoyer, the fifth longest-serving lawmaker, said late Wednesday.
Other protests on the House floor have occurred.
In 2008, deep in a four-year stint in the minority, Republicans took over the floor as the House adjourned for a long summer recess, holding daily gatherings and chanting “Drill Baby Drill” to demand votes on greater oil production. Hoyer noted that in his days in the minority, the future House speaker, Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), would organize cabals to take command of the floor.
But the sheer size of the gun protest, and the potential for it to continue, make it unlike anything veterans like Hoyer have ever seen.
Ultimately, Democrats agreed, Lewis needed to be the catalyst.
“Aren’t we blessed to serve with John Lewis in the Congress,” Pelosi said on the House floor during the protest. “Aren’t we blessed to have him as a colleague? Aren’t we blessed to have him as a friend?