WASHINGTON -- House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) laid into Democrats on Thursday for causing "chaos" in the House, dismissing their sit-in over gun legislation as nothing more than a publicity stunt and fundraising effort.
"Why do I call this a stunt?" Ryan asked. "Well, because it is one."
Democrats know that the legislation to prevent people on a terrorist watch list from buying a gun isn't going anywhere, the Wisconsin Republican said, particularly after it failed in the Senate. He also noted that the proposal failed yesterday in a House Appropriations Committee markup.
“If this is not a political stunt, then why are they trying to raise money off of this, off of a tragedy?" Ryan said, holding up printed-out emails from Democrats soliciting donations.
A testy Ryan went after Democrats for hijacking the floor and seeming to find an incredibly effective minority strategy.
"We watched a publicity stunt, a fundraising stunt, descend on an institution that many of us care a great deal about," he said. "So yeah, I think it sets a very dangerous precedent."
Ryan insisted that members have a process for getting votes on legislation that leaders don't want to bring to the floor, making a case for the rarely effective discharge petition, and he chastised Democrats for their lack of decorum.
"This is Congress," Ryan said. "The House of Representatives! Oldest democracy in the world, and they're descending it into chaos. I don't think this should be a very proud moment for democracy or for the people who staged these stunts."
But if this is just a stunt, it's one Ryan and other Republicans don't seem to have an answer to.
Democrats have seemingly cornered the speaker on the gun issue. While they ended their sit-in Thursday, they vowed to be back on July 5 when the House reconvenes to continue their push for a vote on the so-called "no fly, no buy" bill.
And while Ryan can dismiss the effort as a stunt, there's clearly political traction here. Democrats routinely cite polls suggesting more than 85 percent of voters support banning people on the terrorist watch list from getting a gun.
Anytime Ryan wishes to shut out Democrats from a vote, he opens himself up to the critique he'd desperately hoped to avoid when he came into the speakership -- that the legislative process is too restrictive.
While Democrats look like they're fighting for action on guns, Republicans appear as if they want to do nothing. And Ryan comes off as the establishment figure of Congress that members on both sides of the aisle have decried, to great effect, for years.
Broadcasts of the Democratic sit-in reinforced that image. Instead of the normal House footage going out over C-SPAN, Republicans turned off the cameras -- which is normal procedure when the House goes into recess, but is still done at the speaker's discretion. That led Democratic members to use their mobile phones to shoot the floor proceedings and send them out through Periscope and Facebook Live, with C-SPAN eventually picking up the feeds and broadcasting them far and wide.
With Republicans recessing, Democrats had greater control over the demonstration. Members huddled on the floor to create a unified backdrop and offered their arguments with no Republican rebuttal.
That members were sitting on the actual House floor and sending out regular social media updates just amplified the spectacle, and turning off the House cameras didn't prevent the public from seeing it.
When lawmakers return on July 5, Ryan will confront the same issue that drove him to pass a Zika bill in haste and adjourn the House. By drawing a line in the sand that Republicans won't give in to the minority and allow a vote, there doesn't appear to be an obvious solution to the standoff.
Ryan's clampdown on the appropriations process is partly responsible for this situation. While former House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) brought appropriations bills to the floor under an open rule, meaning anyone could get a vote, Ryan has shifted to a structured rule, meaning that he and other GOP leaders decide which amendments to allow.
Had Democrats been able to get a vote on a gun proposal on an upcoming appropriations bill, it's possible this entire state of affairs could have been avoided -- though it's unlikely Ryan sees it that way.
To the speaker, this is simply a political gimmick, a publicity stunt, and there are plenty of Republicans who probably agree with him.
But Democrats have an easy argument to combat that line of attack, thanks to civil rights icon and Rep. John Lewis (R-Ga.).
"For anyone to say this is a publicity stunt, they don't know John Lewis," said Assistant Minority Leader Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), an active member of the civil rights movement himself.
Criticizing Ryan, Lewis noted that Lester Maddox and George Wallace, two governors who fiercely opposed the civil rights movement, had called that movement a "publicity stunt," too.
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