US Republican leaders moved late Wednesday to shut down a dramatic, 12-hour sit-in by Democrats who were demanding Congress vote on gun safety legislation following the Orlando nightclub massacre.
In one of the most extraordinary scenes on the US House floor, Democrats took over the chamber’s proceedings for most of the day, prompting Republican Speaker Paul Ryan to gavel the House into session late at night, nearly drowned out by chants of lawmakers protesting his effort to bring the sit-in to a close.
Ryan, who dismissed the protest as a “publicity stunt,” refused to allow votes on two bills demanded by Democrats: one expanding background checks to include sales at gun shows and on the Internet, and another that prevents people on the government’s no-fly list or FBI terror watch-lists from buying a gun.
Ryan instead called for votes on unrelated issues as he sought a return to regular order. Democrats shouted “No bill, no break!” referring to efforts to prevent Congress from adjourning for the Fourth of July holiday.
After the unrelated votes, the presiding officer declared the House in recess and left the chamber, but dozens of Democrats remained.
“There is a stain on the soul of America, and we must heal it, and it begins tonight,” freshman Democrat Brendan Boyle said.
His colleague Steve Israel said the sit-in will last into Thursday “through the night, guaranteed,” he told AFP.
Republicans “can shut it down but it would be at their own peril.”
The congressional disobedience, which earned praise from President Barack Obama, signaled what is likely to be a protracted election-year battle over firearms — perennially a hot-button US campaign issue.
The House drama began before noon.
“We have to occupy the floor of the House until there is action,” said House Democrat John Lewis- a civil rights icon who marched with Martin Luther King Jr in the 1960s- just before he and dozens of colleagues sat down on the carpeted floor in the well of the chamber.
US lawmakers, mainly Democrats, introduced several bills in recent years aimed at reducing gun violence, including legislation to expand background checks- a provision that has broad public support. But none has passed Congress.
“Who has to be shot, and how many have to die before we do anything?” asked congresswoman Robin Kelly of Illinois.
The chamber was scheduled to wrap up business Thursday before going on break.
The sit-in, which quickly grew to about 100 members, drew the attention of the White House.
“Thank you John Lewis for leading on gun violence where we need it most,” Obama posted on Twitter.
“House Republicans may have cut the cameras, but they can’t cut off our voices,” Democratic White House hopeful Hillary Clinton added in her own tweet. “We have to act on gun violence.”
– ‘Give us a vote’ -With the C-Span cameras turned off during the recess, the public broadcaster responsible for covering congressional sessions enacted a creative workaround, broadcasting live video from social media applications Periscope and Facebook, filmed by two lawmakers.
It was the first time C-Span aired live social media footage from the House floor- where taking pictures and video is prohibited.
There were extraordinary scenes in the chamber.
Congresswoman Tammy Duckworth, a former US Army helicopter pilot who was wounded and lost both legs in Iraq, sat with her colleagues on the carpet of the well, her prosthetics removed, her wheelchair empty beside her.
Top House Democrat Nancy Pelosi joined the insurgents, then led several lawmakers and gun violence survivors and relatives outside onto the Capitol steps.
“Give us a vote,” she demanded of Ryan.
“A moment of silence? We want a moment of truth. We want a time of action to follow it.”
Tensions soared on the floor late Wednesday when some Republicans disrupted the sit-in.
“Radical Islam killed these people!” shouted Republican Louie Gohmert, as he pointed to images of the 49 victims of last weekend’s Orlando shooting by a radicalized gunman.
Earlier this week, the Senate voted on four gun control amendments- two from Democrats and two from Republicans- after Senate Democrat Chris Murphy delivered a 15-hour floor speech demanding votes on gun control.
The Senate rejected all four measures, but lawmakers crafted a bipartisan compromise bill aimed at preventing terror suspects and people on no-fly lists or FBI watchlists from buying a firearm.
The bill’s sponsors said Senate leaders assured them a vote.
Murphy and more than two dozen other Democratic senators, including popular firebrand Elizabeth Warren, entered the chamber to express their solidarity.