A raucous sit-in by Democrats on the floor of the House of Representatives intended to force a vote on long-delayed gun legislation went on for more than a day. The protest began late Wednesday morning, and reached a dramatic zenith that evening, when, in an extraordinary act of defiance, chanting Democratic lawmakers clustered around Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan as he opened a vote on an unrelated financial bill. They yelled “shame” as he walked away. A Republican lawmaker from Alaska, the New York Times reports, was restrained by aides and colleagues as he tried to confront the protesting Democrats, as others looked on in bemusement.

House Republicans had planned to work through until Friday afternoon to wrap up legislation. But Ryan, who has called the protest “a political stunt,” abruptly adjourned the body in the early hours of Thursday morning, after calling a vote on a major appropriations bill without allowing for any debate.

Early Thursday afternoon, the protest and speeches came to a close.

What do Democrats want?

They say they want a vote on two pending pieces of legislation.

  • H.R. 1076 would close the “terror gap” by barring people on certain watch lists, including the “no-fly” list, from being able to buy guns. It would also block the transfer of a firearms license.
  • H.R. 1217 would expand background checks on gun sales to cover all commercial firearm sales, including those at gun shows and over the internet.

These are the same topics covered by the four bills that failed in the Senate Monday.

Would either bill pass if a vote was allowed?

Not likely. Republicans are skeptical about gun reform legislation, and they hold a 247 to 188 majority in the House. Democrats, who realize that the math is not in their favor, are pushing for a vote in part so that they can get individual lawmakers on the record as opposing legislation that has attracted broad public support in an election year.

If the bills will not pass, why doesn’t Paul Ryan just allow a vote?

The party in majority in the House of Representatives holds total control over the legislative agenda. In addition to opposing the proposed legislation — Ryan has said that the terror gap bill raises serious due process concerns — the Speaker almost certainly believes that capitulating to Democrats who have broken House rules to engage in the protest would set a terrible precedent, and weaken him politically.

Mike Debonis of the Washington Post writes:

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.

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.

Has anything like this ever happened before?

Yes and no.

This is only the third sit-in since the 1970s, and the longest in history. The last was in 2008, when Republicans occupied the floor for five and half hours to call for offshore drilling and discuss energy plans. The New York Times published a short account of the event this morning:

In 2008, House Republicans, then in the minority, held a “quasi session” during summer recess to protest the Democrats’ refusal to hold votes on energy policy amid sharply rising gasoline prices. The Republicans met in a darkened chamber, a point they recalled with no small amount of outrage amid Democrats’ complaints on Wednesday. A key difference, though, was that the House was in recess then and no business was interrupted as the protest continued for several days.

On Wednesday, Democrats short-circuited an active legislative session, for which Republicans had scheduled votes on a number of measures, including amendments to the annual financial services and general government appropriations bill. By late afternoon, Republicans said they still intended to conduct business, but the Democrats showed no sign of relenting.

As the Times points out, the Republicans held their sit-in when the House was already out of session. This protest interrupted an active legislative session. It also reached a much wider audience. Even though C-SPAN’s cameras were on and off over the past 24 hours, live streams of the Democrats’ sit-in spread across social media, and were picked up by the major cable news networks. The Republicans’ audience in 2008 was a handful of visitors in the House gallery, while the Democrat’s sit-in went national.

So what’s next?

The lawmakers’ long-term plan is unclear, but there is a similar movement underway in New Hampshire, where state legislators are holding a sit-in in solidarity. And there are suggestions the tactic could spread: One unnamed Democratic lawmaker told the Huffington Post that the party was “devising a variety of parliamentary tactics to pressure the GOP in D.C. this week, then in individual districts next week during recess.”

Because this sit-in is so unprecedented, and exists solely outside of the House’s rules, there is potential for Democrats to pick up the effort again when Congress reconvenes on July 5.

[Photo: CSPAN screenshot]