WASHINGTON – Rebellious Democrats shut down the House's legislative work on Wednesday, staging a sit-in on the House floor and refusing to leave until they secured a vote on gun control measures before lawmakers' weeklong break.
Exasperated Republicans were forced to recess while cutting off cameras that showed the protest. But in an unprecedented step, C-SPAN used live video feeds from one lawmaker's Periscope account and another's Facebook page to transmit words and images from the House chamber.
More than 200 Democrats led by Georgia Rep. John Lewis demanded a vote on measures to expand background checks and block gun purchases by some suspected terrorists in the aftermath of last week's massacre in Orlando, Florida, that killed 49 people in a gay nightclub.
"No bill, no break," shouted Democrats, who demanded that Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., keep the House in session through its planned break next week to vote on gun legislation.
Democrats accused Republicans of political cowardice by failing to schedule a vote.
"Are they more afraid than the children at Sandy Hook?" asked Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., referring to the 2012 shooting that killed 26 people, including 20 elementary school children, in Newtown, Connecticut. "What is so scary about having a vote?"
Lewis, a veteran civil rights leader, asked what Congress has done, then answered his own question: "Nothing. We have turned a deaf ear to the blood of innocents. We are blind to a crisis. Where is our courage?"
Ryan dismissed the protest as "nothing more than a publicity stunt," and in an interview with CNN, made clear there would be no vote.
"We're not going to take away a citizen's constitutional rights without due process," he said.
Republicans emerging from a closed-door meeting said they would hold votes on other legislation, but not the gun votes demanded by the Democrats.
"We are going to go about our business starting tonight," said Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Mo. Democrats were certain to challenge any move.
The protest began around 11:30 a.m., interrupted briefly when Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, tried to start the House's work at noon. The customary prayer and Pledge of Allegiance went ahead, but Poe was forced to recess the House when dozens of Democrats refused to leave the well.
By evening, more than nine hours later, 168 House Democrats — out of 188 — and 34 Senate Democrats joined the protest, according to the House minority leader's office. One after another, they spoke of the need for gun control and talked of constituents who had been killed.
Scattered around the House floor were signs reading "Disarm Hate." Visitors watched from the galleries. A crowd of several hundred gun control advocates gathered outside the Capitol and cheered as Democrats addressed them.
Congress remains gridlocked over gun control, a divide even more pronounced in a presidential election year. The sit-in had the feel of a 1960s-style protest, as some lawmakers sat on the floor, others in their seats.
Republicans had staged a similar protest in 2008. Democrats controlling the House at the time turned off the cameras amid a GOP push for a vote to expand oil and gas drilling. Republicans occupied the floor, delivering speeches after then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi sent the House on its August recess. Pelosi ordered the cameras turned off.
Republicans ultimately forced the drilling provision to be attached to a stopgap spending bill.
C-SPAN, a cable and satellite network that provides continual coverage of House and Senate floor proceedings, does not control the cameras. They're run on authorization by legislative leaders.
Although the cameras were turned off Wednesday, lawmakers relied on social media to transmit video, using Facebook, Twitter and Periscope. C-SPAN broadcast live video streamed on Periscope and Facebook from lawmakers' accounts. Democrats posted the Capitol's main telephone number, which was overwhelmed, and urged constituents to call and request a vote. They also encouraged tweeting under the hashtag #NoBillNoBreak.
Democratic senators joining the protest included Minority Leader Harry Reid, Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Chris Murphy, D-Conn., who had waged a nearly 15-hour filibuster last week to force votes in the Senate on gun legislation. Those votes failed Monday night.
Democrats cited polls showing broad public support for expanding background checks for firearms purchases and blocking suspected terrorists from buying guns.
Pelosi, now the minority leader, said the House needs to act on gun legislation, rather than continually hold moments of silence in memory of victims of gun violence.
"We truly believe that if there were a vote that we would win the vote, because 85 to 90 percent of the American people ... support responsible background checks legislation," Pelosi said.