House Democrats enjoyed something rare this week: relevance.
Five years into their minority status, House Democrats spend most of their time at the periphery of power – unable to accomplish much other than oppose the Republican majority. Indeed, the few times Democrats have been able to flex their muscle in recent years came when GOP leaders needed their votes to offset Republican defections on measures like spending bills that kept the government functioning.
That changed just before noon Wednesday when Democrats – led by civil rights icon and Atlanta congressman John Lewis – went to the House floor and launched a sit-in that harkened back to the 1960s protests against southern segregation. For the first time in years, Democrats controlled the floor – and wouldn’t give it up.
“Sometimes you have to do something out of the ordinary. Sometimes you have to make a way out of no way. We have been quiet for too long,” Lewis said. “There comes a time when you have to say something, when you have to make a little noise, when you have to move your feet. This is the time. Now is the time to get in the way. The time to act is now. We will be silent no more.”
And silent they were not.
For more than 24 hours, Democrats dominated the House floor as they demanded a vote on gun control legislation following this month’s shooting at an Orlando gay nightclub that left 49 people dead. They shouted over Speaker Paul Ryan as he gaveled the chamber into session – an extraordinary sign of protest that would normally provoke a crackdown. They held signs that memorialized victims of gun violence. And they dug in, bringing pillows, food and other essentials for the long haul.
When a police officer asked lawmakers to leave so they could conduct a daily security sweep, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi responded, “That’s not going to happen.”
The protest marked one of the more unusual days in recent congressional history – not just for its disruption but the manner in which Democrats seized control of the narrative.
They didn’t bargain for fewer spending cuts or seek to blunt changes to Social Security in the manner Democrats often do when they negotiate with Republicans on big pieces of legislation. They went around House leadership – Lewis told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer he didn’t give top Republicans a heads-up on his plans – and even circumscribed C-SPAN. When the network couldn’t air proceedings because House Republicans control the cameras, Democrats aired the proceedings on social media platforms like Periscope and Facebook. C-SPAN and other networks, including CNN, ultimately carried those feeds on their air.
“Social media told the story,” Lewis said Thursday afternoon as the sit-in concluded.
The Democrats had a few missteps. Despite the high-minded aura many sought to associate with their efforts, Pelosi issued a fundraising appeal through the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee that seemed out of step with a day where the narrative was supposed to be about ending the cycle of gun violence.
And Democrats seemed caught off guard by GOP efforts late in the night to undermine the session. At one point as Republican leaders planned to move forward with unrelated votes, a pack of about 30 Democrats gathered at the front of the House, leaning in and animated as they worked through a frenetic strategy session.
But to understand just how big the Democratic victory was on Wednesday, consider this: the day was supposed to be all about major speeches from Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. But by the end of the day – for the first time in months – the 2016 presidential election seemed like the secondary political story.
The question now is whether House Democrats can keep the momentum going. There was talk much of the night that they would continue the protest in some form in the House chamber until lawmakers return on July 5.
But as the sit-in wrapped up Thursday afternoon, Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina, who has spoken passionately about gun control in the aftermath of the Charleston massacre, said Democrats would use the upcoming break to make their case to the public.
“We are going back to our congressional districts,” he said. “We are going to engage our constituents on the subject. And we will not allow this body to ever feel as comfortable as they have felt in the past.”
CNN’s Deirdre Walsh, Betsy Klein, Eric Bradner and Tom LoBianco contributed to this story