By Mike Lillis and Russell Berman - 05/07/14 10:14 PM EDT
The partisan clash over a special Benghazi probe reached a fever pitch Wednesday on the eve of a House vote to establish the investigative panel.
Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) sought to bolster his controversial decision to launch a special committee with assurances that the goal is “a serious investigation” and not a politically motivated “circus,” while at least three Democratic leaders called on their party to boycott the panel unless each party is given equal membership.
Boehner and the Republicans face a tricky task in deciding which members to place on the panel — a choice complicated by the recent clash between Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), both of whom are conducting separate probes into the Benghazi attack and have a vested interest in being a part of the process.
Democratic leaders, for their part, are still weighing whether they’ll participate in an investigation they’ve condemned, or boycott the panel altogether, as they did a similar GOP-led committee probing the government’s 2005 response to Hurricane Katrina.
At a Democratic Caucus meeting Wednesday, some members argued that a boycott would empower Republicans to conduct a one-sided investigation without a voice in the administration’s defense; others feared that joining the panel would legitimize an investigation most Democrats deem a political ploy to humiliate the White House ahead of November’s elections.
Central to the Democrats’ complaints, the 12-member panel created by the Republicans’ bill would consist of seven Republicans and five Democrats — an imbalance many in the minority consider unfair.
Reps. Steve Israel (N.Y.), head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, James Clyburn (S.C.), the third-ranking House Democrat, and Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.), head of the Democratic National Committee, have all advocated a boycott if the panel is not evenly split.
Some Republicans, meanwhile, acknowledge that their strategy to highlight the Benghazi attack is not without political risks. While the issue resounds within the GOP’s conservative base, Republicans could also alienate independents if they’re seen trying to exploit the tragedy, which led to the death of four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador to Libya.
With that in mind, Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) said the panel should avoid releasing its findings before the November elections — either this year or in 2016.
“Don’t overplay your hand. Don’t reach beyond the facts, and take your time and get it done right,” advised Cole. “Don’t look like you’re trying to either rush it to impact this election or drag it out to impact the next one.”
Those political dangers surfaced Wednesday, when Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), who will head the select panel, condemned the notion of fundraising on the Benghazi tragedy just a day after the National Republican Congressional Committee launched a website doing just that.
“I have never sought to raise a single penny on the backs of four murdered Americans,” Gowdy said during an appearance on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”