Politics

Minority Party Makes a Major Shift in House

Democrats have elevated their messaging, raised their voices on key issues

From left, Reps. Paul Tonko, James E. Clyburn, John Lewis, Joseph Crowley and Nancy Pelosi sing "We Shall Overcome" with demonstrators on the East Front of the Capitol after the House Democrats' sit-in ended Thursday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

"Emboldened."   

That was how House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi described the mood as her Democratic colleagues staged a sit-in  Wednesday on the House floor to call for a vote on gun control. Democrats left the chamber Thursday, nearly 26 hours later, still showing signs of that boldness.   

[ House Democrats Bring Sit-In to an End ]  

But the word captures more than just a momentary feeling. It epitomizes the shift that has occurred in recent weeks among the minority party.  

Democrats have now, several times over the past month, erupted into protest on the House floor on issues ranging from gay rights to gun violence — the sit-in serving as the capstone of their increasing efforts to be heard.   

[ Democratic Uproar Follows Moment of Silence ]  

The minority party in the House, an institution where the majority makes the rules and dictates the legislative agenda, has always had limited means of getting their message across. But now Democrats are finding new ways to amplify their voice and show that they won't let their second-tier status limit their ambitions.   

"As time goes on, your strategy changes, your tactics change, and the rules change," said Assistant Democratic Leader James E. Clyburn of South Carolina .   

"We’ve been conducting ourselves in keeping with some rules and regulations — much as I did as a child when I went to the back of the bus, conducting myself as the rules said," said Clyburn, an activist in the civil rights era. "One day I decided I’m not going to the back of this bus anymore. And the rules changed."  

"We have decided that we’re not going to be silent anymore," he added. "And we’ll decide various ways to make our voices heard. I have no idea how that’s going to be, but I know that it will not be as usual."  

[ More Democratic Ballyhoo Over Guns on House Floor ]  

Democrats Vow to Keep Up the Fight on Gun Control

Other members acknowledged the change as something more organic.   

"This is years in the making of frustration," said Connecticut Rep. John B. Larson , one of the Democratic organizers of the sit-in. "The spontaneity of it is the beauty of it."   

It's not just the frustration of House Democrats. It's the frustration of their constituents, sick and tired of politics as usual, according to New York Rep. Joseph Crowley .   

"They look at Washington and see what’s not working. We’re trying to make Washington work again for the American people," said Crowley, vice chairman of the House Democratic Caucus. "And it’s not about the politics."  

[ Key Moments in the House Sit-In on Guns ]  

Speaker Paul D. Ryan, however, believes it is about politics, saying that the Democrats sit-in and protests on the floor amounted to publicity stunts. The Wisconsin Republican worries their actions will set a "very dangerous precedent" for how the House functions.   

"On the House floor, where we have rules, where we have order, where we have a system, where a democracy is supposed to work its way up in a deliberative, respective way, no, I did not expect that," Ryan said when asked how he felt about Democrats booing him and yelling "shame" as he attempted to conduct House business during the sit-in.   

[ Angry Ryan Says Democrats Set 'Dangerous Precedent' ]  

Democrats have not closed the door on future demonstrations but they reject the notion that protests will become their primary means of leveraging power.  

"It’s folly for the speaker to suggest that this is some sort of precedent in that regard," said Washington Rep. Rick Larsen.  "But when you stand in the way so long of even taking a vote on issues where the American public is with the entire Congress, and yet you've stepped in the way, you can expect this kind of response."

Not the first or last outcry 

The gun control stalemate following the mass shooting in Orlando was a breaking point for House Democrats, but it wasn't the first and it won't be the last.   

"Take it one issue at a time," Pelosi said when asked about the increasingly vocal Democratic protests on the floor. She cautioned, however, that the outbursts have not been tactical.   

Take for example their boos and chants of "shame, shame, shame"  after Republican leaders convinced some of their members to switch their votes to defeat an amendment to an appropriations measure that would have banned federal contractors from discriminating against people on the basis of sexual orientation or gender.   

[ Moral Victory on Confederate Flag, Painful Defeat on LGBT Protection ]  

"We didn’t go to the floor intending to do anything except hopefully win the vote," Pelosi said.   

Besides that floor frenzy, there have been other actions related to LGBT rights and gun violence prevention, including a walkout by Democratic lawmakers from the House chamber this month rather than observe a moment of silence for the 49 killed in the Orlando massacre. They wanted to call attention to what they saw as the GOP's inaction in the face of repeated gun attacks.   

When the House returns on July 5, Democrats plan to keep speaking up, on gun control in particular, Larson said.  

"We have a responsibility when we come back here to turn it up," he said, referring primarily to the gun control fight.   

[ Pelosi: 'We Cannot Stop' Until We Get a Gun Bill ]  

"We want this chamber to get down to business, to do its work. So whatever it takes to get the speaker to give us a chance to vote, we’ll try to do," said California's Xavier Becerra, the Democratic caucus chairman.   

Gun control is unlikely to be the only issue Democrats speak out on, but it remains to be seen what other causes they'll push and what tools they'll use to share their message.   

[ Inside the House’s First Social Media Non-Filibuster ]  

"I think you will see more spontaneity as to the form things will take," Pelosi said.   

"I would expect that on the key issues that Democrats identify, that we're going to be much more vocal," said Larsen, the Washington congressman. "It's not going to be an issue where it's roll over and do nothing. It's going to be an issue where we're going to push hard."  

Contact McPherson at lindseymcpherson@rollcall.com and follow her on Twitter @lindsemcpherson

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