The House on Thursday voted 232-186 to create a select committee to investigate the 2012 attack that killed four Americans at a diplomatic facility in Benghazi, Libya.
The move to create the panel was supported by only 7 Democrats, setting the stage for what will likely be a contentious investigation this summer. Democrats are debating whether to boycott the panel altogether.
Republicans said creating a special panel was necessary to determine whether the administration painted a false narrative about the Benghazi attack to protect President Obama’s foreign policy record as he ran for a second term.
The seven Democrats who voted in favor of the Benghazi probe were Reps. Ron Barber (Ariz.), John Barrow (Ga.), Mike McIntyre (N.C.), Patrick Murphy (Fla.), Collin Peterson (Minn.), Nick Rahall (W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.). All of them serve in districts that lean Republican, and six are facing tough reelection races.
One of the emails showed White House official Ben Rhodes discussing "goals" for the Sunday talk show appearances of then-United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice. Rhodes said Rice should "underscore that these protests are rooted in an Internet video, and not a broader failure of policy."
Republicans charge that the administration falsely attributed the Benghazi assault to a spontaneous protest to obscure evidence that groups linked to al Qaeda had attacked the facility.
"In my view, these discoveries compel the House to respond as one institution and establish one select committee. A committee with robust authority. A committee that will do its work while the House continues to focus on the people's priorities," Boehner said.
"This doesn't need to be, shouldn't be, and will not be, a partisan process," Boehner added.
Democrats accused the GOP of politicizing the attacks to rile the conservative base ahead of the midterm elections.
"I'm appalled by this posturing to use the tragedy of those four deaths for political and financial gain. It's shameful and contemptible," said Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.).
Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) said that establishing another panel would be unnecessary and ultimately fruitless. He said four House committees have already conducted investigations into the Benghazi attack.
"With all due respect, if the Republicans want to fix the problems with their partisan investigation, they need more than just a new chairman," said Cummings, the top Democrat on the House Oversight Committee.
Republicans said establishing a select panel to issue subpoenas was necessary to obtain full answers from the Obama administration.
"This administration is playing games," said House Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions (R-Texas).
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who heads the House Oversight Committee, said the special panel will build off of the earlier investigations while focusing more intently on the role of the White House.
"It's not about, 'What can somebody accomplish that previously wasn't accomplished,' " Issa said. "Five committees brought together information from throughout various parts of government, but now the investigation primarily, I believe, will move to the cover-up, which included direct White House involvement."
Republicans' decision to create a select panel is not without political risks. The National Republican Campaign Committee came under fire for blasting out emails for a fundraising campaign called "Benghazi Watchdogs" ahead of the vote.
Boehner deflected three questions at a Thursday press conference asking whether he thought the NRCC should stop its Benghazi-related fundraising efforts.
"Our focus is on getting the answers to those families who lost their loved ones, period," Boehner said in response to each question.
Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, denounced the NRCC’s fundraising pitch.
"Fundraising off the Benghazi tragedy is despicable and insulting and has no place in the national conversation," Israel said in a statement.
Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), a former federal prosecutor known for his aggressive questioning in committee hearings, will led the select Benghazi panel as chairman.
The House GOP leadership is expected to announce the other six Republican members on Friday.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) would have the option of appointing five Democrats, but the party remains undecided about participating. While some Democrats are concerned that their participation would appear to legitimize the panel, others say they should still be present to counter GOP arguments and defend witnesses.
House Democrats will meet Friday morning to discuss their path forward.
Aides to Boehner and Pelosi are in talks on a compromise in which Democrats would participate in the panel with the understanding that they would have a say in decisions about issuing subpoenas and other matters that would otherwise be controlled by the majority, according to lawmakers and aides in both parties.
The agreement would not involve changing the text of the resolution, which simply says those decisions would be made “in consultation” with the ranking Democrat on the committee. But if Pelosi decided to appoint members to the panel, she would likely argue that she extracted a firmer commitment on bipartisanship as a concession from the Speaker.
“You would need to get an agreement with the Speaker,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), a senior Democrat who is close with Pelosi. “It doesn’t have to be in the resolution so long as it’s an agreement between the parties that’s negotiated. But again, we haven’t gotten to that point yet.”
Boehner said he spoke on Wednesday with Pelosi, who is out of town, but there was no indication they had reached an agreement.
The House Democratic leadership has maintained that only a panel equally comprised of Democrats and Republicans would ensure fair proceedings. But Republicans rebuffed that request, pointing to a select committee created by Democrats in 2007 to study global warming that did not have an equal partisan balance.
— Mike Lillis contributed.