House members return to Washington on Tuesday with battle lines drawn: Democrats vow to continue disrupting order until they get a vote on a gun control bill they support. Speaker Paul D. Ryan promises to crack down on disorderly conduct.
A Republican counter-terrorism bill that includes a conservative version of a "no fly, no buy" provision clearly did little to mollify Democratic leaders. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi called it “toothless,” and a spokeswoman for Whip Steny Hoyer said it was “deeply disappointing.”
What happens next is less clear.
Democrats, buoyed by public support for their nearly 26-hour siege on the House floor in late June, say they will approach Ryan about amendments they believe will do a better job of keeping guns out of the hands of terrorists.
If that doesn't work, said Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., the party has “lots of tools in the toolbox."
"If Speaker Ryan insists on not giving the American people a vote on 'no-fly, no-buy,' then we will reach into that toolbox,” Israel said after leading a short protest last week . “And we will continue to avail ourselves of the tools. Some will be blunt. Some will be sharp. Some will be blunt and sharp.”
Ryan, who told fellow Republicans last week he would restore order to the chamber, also has some tools as his disposal. That could include closing down the House session to turn off the chamber's cameras, which are broadcast on C-SPAN, as he did during the sit-in that began June 22 . He could also call on Capitol Police to physically remove members who are violating House rules.
Analysts say the speaker, still in his first year running the House, has to be careful about how he exercises power.
“The last thing you want to do as the majority is to enforce the narrative that you are shutting down or silencing the other party,” said Matthew Green, a politics professor at the Catholic University. “That looks terrible.”
On the other hand, Green said, the speaker can’t completely back off. “If the House chooses to not to enforce its rules more stringently it encourages future protests like this by both parties."
Democrats remain unapologetic about breaking House rules during their impromptu protest inside the chamber. Around noon on June 22, they followed civil rights icon and Georgia Rep. John Lewis into the well of the House floor and sat down. They began chanting “No Bill, No Break,” essentially urging the GOP majority to vote on a gun control bill before leaving town for a 10-day recess.
Republicans quickly adjourned the first session of the day, which meant the cameras taping the floor activities were turned off. But Democrats, in direct violation of House rules, used mobile phones to photograph and keep airing their protest.
House rules state that that no one is allowed to use a cell phone or cameras inside the chamber unless they are designated staff. Democrats took a symbolic voice vote to allow themselves to break the rule. Facebook live streams from 19 Democrats were viewed more than 3 million times and that in a single day, 1 million people saw tweets broadcasting Periscope feeds, Pelosi’s office said.
As the night wore on, people in public galleries responded to lawmakers shouting up to them with a standing ovation – another House no-no.
Ryan eventually brought the House back into session late that evening and, amid shouting from Democrats, pushed through a key vote on an appropriations bill. Then Republicans voted to start the July 4 recess, two days ahead of schedule.
Democrats continued to occupy the House floor and tape their proceedings until about 1 p.m. June 23. They proclaimed the sit-in an act of “civil disobedience.”
Republican Protest Tactics
Unlike the Senate in which any member — whether in the majority or the minority — can hold a filibuster for an unlimited amount of time to talk about any given issue, the House has limited time for debate.
That doesn’t mean the minority party does not have opportunities to get a message across while keeping decorum, said Robert S. Walker, a former Republican congressman from Pennsylvania in the 1980s and early 1990s when the GOP was in the minority. He later became chief deputy whip
Walker said he often used television to go on the offensive against Democrats, especially during the hour of debate time during “special order” following a session. He recalled a time in the 1980s when former Democratic Speaker Tip O’Neill had the House cameras pan out during one of Walker’s evening speeches to show that the Republican was speaking to an empty chamber.
Walker noted, however, that the chamber’s cameras kept rolling allowing for C-SPAN coverage .
“Yeah, there’s nobody in the chamber,” Walker said, recalling his reaction. “But the fact is, there are hundreds of thousands of you out across the country that are paying attention.”
Walker never went as far as Democrats did last month. He called the sit-in "disrespectful" and said it was a disservice to the House as an institution.
Democrats still can, and have, used one-minute speeches at the start of a legislative day to talk about gun violence. But that hasn’t been enough to muster a vote.
Ryan’s announcement last week that he would offer a counter-terrorism bill with a gun control provision raised some hopes for a resolution. But when Democrats saw the bill’s language the next day they said it reflected a proposal backed by the National Rifle Association that would do little to keep terrorists from buying guns.
Two Democrats, Lewis and Rep. John B. Larson of Connecticut, have asked to talk to Ryan about adding amendments that allow a ban on gun sales to people on terror watch lists and tougher background checks.
Ryan said he would meet with the two Democrats on Tuesday night. At the same time, the House Rules Committee will consider what amendments to debate when the counter-terrorism bill reaches the floor later this week.
The results could well determine whether protests continue.
While Ryan did little to break up the June sit-in, his office said he’s evaluating options for action and consulting with the sergeant-at-arms for dealing with future episodes.
Beyond the sit in, Democrats protested loudly on the floor in late May when the House voted down a gay rights protections measure and again last week when the House held a brief housekeeping session.
Under House rules, the speaker has the power to issue a directive allowing Capitol Police to enter the chamber and remove members for breaking from decorum.
It wouldn’t be the first time Capitol Police were recalled to calm unruly members.
In 2012, Rep. Bobby Rush was thrown off the House floor after wearing a hooded sweatshirt and sunglasses in protest of the Trayvon Martin shooting.
Capitol Police were called to a House committee meeting in 2003 after Democrats demanded to see a line-by-line breakdown of a bill that resulted in accusations of name-calling, vulgarity and physical threats. Police told the members to work it out among themselves.
In 1994, Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., interrupted proceedings on the floor the day after a Banking Committee hearing where she told Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., to “shut up” after he accused then-first lady Hillary Clinton’s chief of staff of lying during a hearing on the Whitewater scandal.
In last month's sit in, Ryan chose not to remove members, even when he was shouted down by the minority party. Instead he adjourned the House.
Ryan ultimately allowed Democrats to protest without taking action—but was sure to call the act a “publicity stunt."
Ryan told Republicans in a call last week that he was willing to take "any action we deem necessary" to restore order, according to a source on the call.
Democrats may find out just what that means this week.
Lindsey McPherson and Jeremy Silk Smith contributed.