Last Wednesday, Senate Democrats made an impassioned demand for action on gun control and held up their chamber’s business for a day, demanding votes on their proposals. The filibuster ended after 15 hours, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) later allowed votes on a series of gun measures.

This Wednesday, House Democrats made an impassioned demand for action on gun control and have held up their chamber’s business for a day, demanding votes on their proposals. Their sit-in has already lasted 12 hours, and those lawmakers pledging to continue for many hours more — days if necessary. And House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) appears determined not to relent.

“This is not a way to try and bring up legislation,” Ryan said on CNN Wednesday evening.

Why are the two Republican leaders handling the Democratic tactics so differently?

It’s less about their differing personalities or politics. It’s more about the differing institutions they lead.

The rules of the Senate demand that the minority party’s view be respected as a matter of course. Any controversial bill requires 60 senators to vote to close debate and proceed to a final vote, and because there are only 54 Republican senators, GOP leaders need Democratic cooperation to accomplish just about anything — giving Democrats tremendous leverage.

In fact, Republican leaders last week insisted that the talking filibuster led by Sen. Chris Murphy was pointless — Democrats’ leverage to secure gun votes wasn’t about Murphy occupying the floor for 15 hours, but rather about the willingness of at least 40 Democrats to block passage of the pending appropriations bill unless those votes were held.

The rules of the House hew closer to “might makes right.” The majority party wields near-absolute control over what bills come to the floor, in what form they come to the floor, what amendments are considered and what kind of debate will be had. The minority’s ability to dissent is channeled into amendments and obscure procedural motions that are routinely voted down along party-line votes.


Democratic members of the House stage a sit-in on the House floor “to demand action on common sense gun legislation.” (Rep. Katherine Clark/via Reuters)

The Democrats’ gun-control sit-in is a maneuver outside those rules, and it’s one that threatens Republicans’ ability to control the floor — which is a major reason why Ryan is refusing to give in and why Republican lawmakers have his back.

A vote on the Democrat “terror gap” proposal might be an uncomfortable one for some swing-district Republicans, but it’s not any political discomfort that Ryan couldn’t mitigate by holding a side-by-side vote on a Republican alternative measure — which is exactly what happened in the Senate.

Rather, Republicans are afraid of setting a precedent where the minority party (or any group of members large enough to raise a ruckus) can hijack the House floor at any time to get their way — in essence, turning the House into a bigger Senate.

That was the view expressed by several Republican members leaving a GOP conference meeting Wednesday evening in the House basement.

“Look, you don’t surrender to legislative blackmail, and that’s what this is,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a leadership ally who is close to Ryan. “It’s not the minority’s job to decide what bills come to the floor. We didn’t get to do that when we were the minority; they don’t get to do that now. I think it would be an enormous mistake to surrender an inch.”

Cole said that if Democrats were to succeed in winning a vote on their measure, it would lead only to more frequent minority antics — and he said he had spoken to Democratic lawmakers who shared his concern.

“People who have been around here a while know that turnabout’s fair play,” he said. “If you establish this precedent, it’ll be used against you. That’s not good no matter who’s running the House of Representatives.”

As rowdy as the Democratic sit-in got late Wednesday, Rep. Daniel Webster (R-Fla.) has seen worse. He recalled, while serving as speaker of the Florida House of Representatives, presiding over his body when an actual physical fight broke out on the floor.

“Some guy flipped a tie in a guy’s face, and they grabbed each other and they went to the ground,” he recalled. Dealing with it was simple: “We have a set of rules. Go by the rules.”

Such principles ought to apply to the U.S. House, Webster said: “We have a set of rules. You gotta run by them. And we can’t be bullied around. We’re the majority. That’s it.”