By Russell Berman - 05/10/14 05:25 PM EDT
The House Democratic caucus is split over whether the party should participate in the House select committee on Benghazi that Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) moved to establish last week to investigate the terrorist attack that killed four Americans in 2012.
Party leaders have universally condemned the panel as a partisan exercise, but some Democratic lawmakers believe it would be a mistake to boycott the probe entirely. After a meeting of the caucus and talks with Boehner on Friday, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) left for the weekend without deciding whether to appoint members to the committee.
Boehner has now named all seven of his appointees, and Democratic aides said it's likely Pelosi will either name her full allotment of five lawmakers or none at all, as opposed to naming just one or two Democrats, as one of her allies had suggested during the week.
There are compelling arguments on both sides of the debate for Democrats.
Why Democrats should participate
1) Americans died
Unlike investigations that probe allegations of corruption, political chicanery or bureaucratic incompetence, Benghazi is ultimately about a terrorist attack that killed four Americans at an overseas post, including the U.S. ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens. Democrats may cry foul about the GOP’s motives or the necessity of the select committee, but they risk looking callous by boycotting an inquiry into the matter. And while there have already been extensive investigations into Benghazi, the White House raised more questions last month by releasing an email it withheld from Congress to a private organization, under the Freedom of Information Act.
2) They need a seat at the table
A Democratic boycott may grab initial headlines and energize the party’s core supporters, but it won’t stop Republicans from forging ahead with their investigation. Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) and the six other GOP panelists will hold hearings, call witnesses, subpoena documents and in all likelihood implicate the Obama administration in a cover-up whether Democrats participate or not. But with empty seats on the dais, Republicans will be able to levy their charges without rebuttal, ensuring that a national television audience only hears one side of the story.
Democrats such as Rep. Henry Waxman (Calif.), who believes the party should appoint members to the committee, point to the example of Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the top Democrat on the House oversight committee who has provided a strong counterweight to Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.). At times, he's put the GOP on defense over Issa’s aggressive tactics. Whether it is Cummings or someone else, Democrats need to have a similar voice on the select committee. And it would be much harder, if not impossible, to ask back in to the proceedings after boycotting them initially.
3) Hillary Clinton
Democrats suspect that a major Republican objective of the select committee is to target former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton ahead of her potential campaign for the presidency in 2016. Clinton was widely praised for her appearance at a Senate hearing on Benghazi shortly before she left office in early 2013, but Republicans still criticize her for saying, “What difference, at this point, does it make?” GOP lawmakers have accused her of ignoring warnings and pleas for more security at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, suggesting the attack could be a major liability for her in 2016.
"Clearly, Hillary Clinton said when she ran for president that she was the one that would pick up that 3 a.m. phone call. Where was she on this one?” Rep. Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.) said. “She was nowhere to be found. So obviously it could have ramifications in her race [in 2016].”
Clinton is far and away the favorite among Democratic leaders to be the party’s standard-bearer in 2016, and it would behoove them to have members on the select committee to protect her from becoming a punching bag for Republicans.
Why Democrats should boycott
1) It’s a politically-motivated sham, Dems say
Yes, the Benghazi terrorist attack is a grave matter that deserves a serious investigation. But it has been investigated. And investigated. And investigated. And investigated. House committees have conducted at least four separate inquiries into the attack, and even Speaker Boehner believed a select committee was redundant and unnecessary until he abruptly changed his mind in early May after the release of a White House email that had previously been withheld.
His decision had the stench of politics all over it. Conservatives had been demanding a select committee for months, and Boehner had just angered those same lawmakers with mocking comments about the GOP’s reluctance to tackle immigration reform. Moreover, Republicans need heavy turnout from the conservative base in November, and with a big drop in the unemployment rate and solid enrollment numbers for ObamaCare, the GOP needed to change the subject. Democrats, the thinking goes, shouldn’t go along with a charade.
That thinking was solidified among some Democrats when the GOP's campaign arm sent out a fundraising appeal focused on the Benghazi committee and after Boehner refused to call for a halt to Benghazi-related money pitches going forward.
2) Republicans have already made up their minds
Even if the investigation wasn’t motivated by politics, Republicans aren’t exactly going in with an open mind. The select committee may not lead to an impeachment vote, but a number of the GOP lawmakers on the panel have already concluded that the White House engineered a cover-up of the Benghazi attack. According to their argument, officials made it seem in the initial aftermath that the attack was sparked by a protest in Egypt, as opposed to a terrorist plot that would undermine President Obama’s campaign claims to have dismantled al Qaeda and its affiliates.
"Let them drive it. They’re driving it anyway,” Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), a member of the Democratic leadership, said of the panel, according to CNN. “Not bringing a noose to my own hanging.”
3) A boycott could de-legitimize the committee
Democrats worry that their participation would give the select committee legitimacy, thus lending more credibility to whatever it ultimately concludes. By boycotting the panel, some Democrats believe they can doom it from the start and cement its reputation in the public eye as a partisan witch hunt. The media, according to this argument, would be less likely to cover hearings that featured only Republicans, and the investigation would quickly lose steam and public interest.