Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, head of the Democratic National Committee, fueled a fractious revolt Wednesday as she helped lead a sit-in over gun limits on the House of Representatives floor that threw Congress into chaos and forced Republicans to adjourn the session.
Adding to the ferment on Capitol Hill since the Orlando shooting, Rep. David Jolly of Florida broke with other Republicans as he pushed his bill to prevent people on terrorist watch lists from buying guns while courts reviewed their cases.
South Floridians Wasserman Schultz and Rep. Lois Frankel, along with dozens of other Democrats, breached House decorum, as set by bipartisan rules, by leaving their seats, moving to the front of the chamber and sitting on the floor.
The dramatic move was a protest against the refusal of Republicans, who hold a House majority and can control which measures are moved, from considering legislation to ban the sale of guns to people suspected of having terrorist ties.
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“How many families and communities will be torn apart by our epidemic of gun violence before Republicans summon the courage to act?” Wasserman Schultz said during the sit-in. “How many more times will they block the ‘No Fly, No Buy’ legislation that would help keep us safe? Their inaction is a national disgrace, and House Democrats will not stand for it any longer. And so we sit.”
Wasserman Schultz read a letter from former Rep. Gabby Giffords, who was shot in the head and critically wounded Jan. 8, 2011, as she met with constituents outside a Safeway store near Tucson, Ariz.
“Speaking is difficult for me, but I haven’t been silenced,” Giffords, who now leads a gun-control group called Americans for Responsible Action, wrote. “And neither should the American people. Their representatives (in Congress) must vote to prevent gun violence.”
The sit-in prompted Republican leaders to order C-SPAN cameramen from the chamber and then to suspend the session.
After C-SPAN coverage ended, House members used Twitter, Facebook, other social media and emailed releases to describe the chaotic scene.
It was significant Wasserman Schultz, the No. 3 Democrat in the country behind President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, was chosen to read Giffords’ letter instead of four Democratic representatives from Arizona.
Wasserman Schultz took time from her busy schedule organizing the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia next month and trying to smooth feathers between former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the presumptive nominee, and Sen. Bernie Sanders, her primary opponent.
Since the Orlando massacre, Clinton and Wasserman Schultz, who are close friends, have made it clear they will use suspected terrorists’ access to guns as a presidential campaign issue against presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump. Both women angrily criticized him for having blamed Obama for the Orlando attack in its aftermath.
While using less confrontational language, Jolly signaled displeasure with Speaker Paul Ryan and other House Republican leaders who’ve refused to move on gun legislation since the June 12 shooting by Omar Mateen that left 49 people dead and 53 injured at the Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando.
Mateen, 29, was killed by police after three hours of shooting and holding hostages at the popular club, in what became the deadliest of mass shooting in American history.
“It is not acceptable to embrace inaction,” Jolly said in a floor speech.
Mateen was interviewed by the FBI on at least two occasions because of alleged statements sympathizing with anti-American jihadists but never charged.
And despite FBI suspicions, Mateen was able to buy a Sig Sauer MCX assault rifle and a Glock 17 semi-automatic pistol on successive days from two Florida gun stores about a week before his rampage.
Jolly’s measure, which he introduced Tuesday, would prohibit people on the FBI terrorist watch lists from buying a gun.
Under the bill, those denied would be notified within 10 days and provided a hearing before a federal judge in no more than a month, at which they could provide evidence they were tagged erroneously or make other due-process arguments.
Jolly’s legislation is similar to a bipartisan compromise measure being pushed in the Senate by Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine and Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida, along with Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham of North Carolina and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire.
During the Democratic sit-in, senators visited the House floor to express solidarity with their House counterparts. Democratic Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Patty Murray of Washington and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts were among those who took up spots alongside the House protesters.
“House Democrats are doing the right thing,” said McCaskill, who was on the losing side in Senate efforts to pass limits on gun purchases by suspected terrorists. “It’s a simple proposition — if you’re suspected of terrorist activity and can’t fly, you shouldn’t be able to buy a gun. A vote on that is a reasonable request. And what’s particularly disappointing is to see Republican leadership turn off the cameras.”
In an emotional speech, Frankel said she thought of her son as soon as she heard about the deadly Orlando violence, and recalled mass shootings at a South Carolina church a year ago and at a Colorado theater in July 2012.
“Before I am a politician, I am a mom,” said the second-term Democrat from West Palm Beach. “So today I demand action for the mom in Aurora who sent her child to the movies, for the mom whose children went to pray in Charleston, for the mom in Orlando whose child went out for a night of celebration.”
The sit-in on the floor of the House of Representatives by Democratic members stretched into Wednesday night and appeared likely to continue throughout Thursday as the protesters turned to Periscope and Facebook Live to broadcast demands for a vote on legislation to restrict gun purchases by suspected terrorists.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said he would not bow to the demand for a vote, and there were suggestions he would attempt to clear the House floor during the night. Democrats said they were prepared to be arrested and many said they would spend the night in the House chamber to make sure the sit-in was not ended.
It was dramatic political theater 10 days after a gunman who’d twice been investigated for links to terrorism attacked a gay nightclub in Orlando just one day after the Senate failed to move forward legislation intended to block suspected terrorists from purchasing weapons.
Adding to the drama, C-SPAN, the company that broadcasts House proceedings, stopped broadcasting the developments at 11:25 a.m., when Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, who was presiding when members began the sit-in, declared the House in recess and ordered cameras turned off.
It was the first time in history lawmakers in the minority used social media to circumvent the power held by the chamber’s majority party and the first time C-SPAN tapped into a social media resource to bypass the majority’s grip on its operations.
“We have not done this before,” said Howard Mortman, C-SPAN’s director of communications. “We’ve incorporated social media extensively in our overall coverage. But what’s happening right now, to be able to put on TV Periscope and Facebook Live video to this extent, is the first time we’ve ever done this for our coverage of the House.”
Lindsay Wise and Maggie Ybarra of the McClatchy Washington Bureau contributed.