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House sit-in goes on as GOP holds votes

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WASHINGTON -- Democrats and Republicans in the House of Representatives are in a dramatic standoff over how to resolve a sit-in entering its 11th hour.

Democrats, led by civil rights icon John Lewis, took control of the chamber Wednesday morning demanding a vote on gun control legislation. But Republicans are resisting, saying they don't want to give in to such protests tactics.

The tension exploded onto the floor just after 10 p.m. ET when Republican Speaker Paul Ryan gaveled the chamber into order to hold a procedural vote on an unrelated matter. An extraordinary scene unfolded as throngs of Democrats -- some holding signs with the names of victims of gun violence -- remained in the House well chanting "no bill, no break" and "shame shame shame." They also sang the protest anthem "We Shall Overcome."

Such displays would normally be prohibited but Ryan, sensitive to the attention being paid to the sit-in, declined to enforce the traditional order in the House.

Republicans emerged from a private meeting Wednesday evening saying that instead of voting on gun control, they would soon try to move stalled funding to combat the Zika virus. That vote could come tomorrow, setting off another potential showdown on the floor.

"With the threat of the Zika virus -- to pregnant women especially -- we must pass this bill before we leave town and that's our drive and our goal and I'm hopeful that we will not see obstructionism by certain members of the House and or the Senate to keep that from happening," House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers told reporters.

The big question late Wednesday was whether Democrats would be allowed to remain in the chamber overnight. Republicans could try to adjourn, turning the lights out for the night.

Numerous Democrats, asked repeatedly when they planned to leave, said they would stay in place until they got a vote on gun control. In a roundtable with reporters Wednesday afternoon, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi reiterated that point, saying Democrats would continue the sit-in "until we have a bill."

Ahead of the vote, dozens of Democratic House members gathered around Minority Whip Steny Hoyer as he equated their sit-in with the civil rights protests led by figures like Lewis and Rep. Jim Clyburn five decades ago.

"We stand here saying Paul Ryan, help give us the right to vote on these two bills, make America safer!" Hoyer said.

As the two sides raced to the night-time showdown in the House, staff brought in food, pillows and even sleeping bags. Lawmakers even announced they had brought in battery packs to keep the livestream on Periscope going through the night.

"I think we are going to work through the evening!" Clyburn promised to cheers.

The U.S. House controls the cameras on its floor, so live video footage was not available during the sit-in, which occurred while the House was in recess, though many lawmakers tweeted images or streamed live video via smartphones.

In an interview with CNN's Wolf Blitzer, Ryan dismissed the sit-in effort as a "publicity stunt." Behind closed doors, he promised Republicans they would vote on an unrelated veto override measure and Zika funding legislation.

The sit-in follows the shooting at an Orlando gay nightclub earlier this month that killed 49 people -- the deadliest incident of gun violence in American history. The shooting is renewing the debate over gun control legislation, which seems poised to go nowhere in Congress. The Senate blocked several gun measures Monday even as a CNN/ORC poll this week found that public support for changes such as tighter background checks hovers around 90%.

Several Republican congressmen criticized the sit-in as a political stunt.

"Calling this a sit-in is a disgrace to Woolworth's," Rep. Mark Walker of North Carolina tweeted. "They sat-in for rights. Dems are 'sitting-in' to strip them away."

Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan tweeted, "Democrats are staging a sit-in on the House floor. They refuse to leave until our Constitution replaces due process with secret lists."

Democrats rallied behind the effort. Some, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, joined the sit-in while others delivered snacks and sodas.

Lewis was also encouraged by President Barack Obama and former President Bill Clinton.

"Thank you John Lewis for leading on gun violence where we need it most," Obama tweeted.

Clinton tweeted his praise, writing, "This is leadership" and linking to Lewis' tweet about the sit-in.

Conscience of Congress

Lewis, 76, perhaps the most prominent of the 1960s-era civil rights leaders still alive, is sometimes called the "conscience of the U.S. Congress" and attracts wide bipartisan respect for his role and moral example in the struggle to end racial segregation.

He organized sit-ins at segregated lunch counters after being inspired to join Martin Luther King Jr.'s crusade for equality and eventually led the mass march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, on Bloody Sunday in 1965, one of the epochal events in American history. Lewis was beaten so badly by Alabama state troopers that they fractured his skull.

Democratic brass, who have struggled mightily to find support for gun control measures, streamed through the House chamber throughout the day. More than 100 House Democrats took part in the sit-in and a steady stream of Senate Democrats walked across the Capitol to join in the protest.

As DNC chairwoman Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz recounted reading the resignation letter from former Rep. Gabby Giffords, who was wounded in a shooting in 2011, from the same House lectern four years ago, she began tearing up.

"No more Auroras, no more Orlandos!" she shouted, to a standing ovation. Pelosi, who led Hillary Clinton into a meeting with congressional Democrats just hours before the sit-in began, stood and applauded with the other Democratic congressmen and senators gathered in the chamber.

And later, as Wasserman Schultz got up to leave, Lewis hugged her.

As the sit-in gathered momentum, Connecticut Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy, a prominent gun control advocate following the Sandy Hook school massacre in 2012, walked over and joined the sit-in. The lawmaker led a nearly 15-hour filibuster in the Senate last week asking lawmakers to vote on gun reform. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid and Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin also joined the group.

Pelosi joined a couple dozen gun control activists Wednesday afternoon on the steps of the Capitol and vowed Democrats would continue until Ryan scheduled a vote.

One activist, a mother who held a picture of her daughter who was killed in a gun incident, urged people to call the speaker's office, and said he was listening to the gun lobby instead of citizens.

"Green paper is more valuable than red blood," the activist shouted, suggesting contributions from gun rights groups were influencing GOP leaders' decisions.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the lawmakers participating in the sit-in were showing the kind of "frustration and even anger that people around the country have about the inability of the Republican-led Congress to take common sense steps that would protect the American people."

"I think they're resorting to what I think even they would acknowledge is an extraordinary step to change the status quo in the House of Representatives that prevents even consideration of common sense gun safety legislation," Earnest said.

CNN's Tom LoBianco contributed to this report.

By Deirdre Walsh, Manu Raju, Stephen Collinson and Tom LoBianco