Election-year Benghazi probe is risk for both Republicans, Democrats

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The appointment of a House select committee on the terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, is quickly shaping up to be an election-year spectacle that carries risks for both Republicans and Democrats heading into November.

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) on Monday named a fiery, second-term conservative, Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), to lead the new panel, while Democrats said they would vote against its creation and might boycott its proceedings entirely.

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Rank-and-file Republicans cheered Boehner’s appointment of Gowdy, a former federal prosecutor known for his aggressive questioning of hearing witnesses and fiery speeches on the House floor.

But the sudden shift to Benghazi threatens to take Republicans off what they said would be a laser-like focus on the economy and jobs, an issue central to the 2014 midterm election.

Democrats say that most voters, with the exception of conservative activists, have moved on from the Benghazi debate.

They have also tried to play up intraparty tensions in the GOP, arguing that Boehner’s move is a slap at Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the Oversight Committee chairman who has courted controversy in his probe of the Benghazi attack. A Democratic House aide also pointed out that Boehner made the move at a time when he has feuded with conservatives over immigration, and amid positive reports on the job market and the president’s healthcare law.

Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said he would urge his colleagues to vote against forming the select committee later this week. He said party leaders had not decided whether to appoint members to sit on the panel, and a spokesman for Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said her office had not been informed by Boehner’s office about the proposed structure of the committee.

At the White House, press secretary Jay Carney also criticized Boehner’s decision and would not say whether the administration would cooperate with the committee’s probe.

A decision to boycott the selection committee entirely, however, would be risky for the White House and Democrats, argued Julian Zelizer, a political analyst at Princeton University.

While Democrats might send a strong message initially by refusing to participate, he said, they would be giving up their seat at the table and would allow Republicans to make accusations without rebuttal in hearings that are likely to generate significant media attention.

“So, it could be dangerous for Democrats,” Zelizer said.

Boehner said Gowdy’s background as a federal prosecutor made him the ideal Benghazi leader for the GOP.

“I know he shares my commitment to get to the bottom of this tragedy and will not tolerate any stonewalling from the Obama administration,” Boehner said in a statement.

Boehner’s move was triggered by the release of an email from Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for communications, suggesting that Susan Rice, then the U.N. ambassador, respond to questions about the Benghazi attack on the Sunday talk shows by “underscor[ing] that these protests are rooted in an Internet video, and not a broader failure of policy.”

Republicans argue this is evidence that the Obama administration misled the public about the attack that killed four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens, on Sept. 11, 2012.

Conservatives have called the Rhodes directive a “smoking gun” supporting their claims that the White House created a false narrative about the Benghazi incident to avoid criticism of President Obama’s foreign policy in the weeks before his 2012 re-election.

Democrats denounced the Speaker’s decision as merely another cave to conservatives who have demanded the creation of a special Benghazi panel for months. And they see 2016 politics coming into play, as Republicans are likely to use the committee to demand testimony and answers from former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton ahead of her possible presidential run.

“We think the committee is unnecessary,” Hoyer said. “[They're] gonna spend taxpayer money for doing something that they've already spent taxpayer money to do. Our view is that we've done that [and] we don't believe the administration covered it up. And we believe that this is political only.”

Carney said Monday that, while the White House has "always cooperated with legitimate oversight," the "highly partisan effort to politicize" the terror attack "certainly casts doubt on the legitimacy" of the new committee.

Carney noted that there had been 13 congressional hearings, 50 member and staff briefings, and more than 25,000 pages of documents produced over the September 11, 2012, terror attack.

Under Pelosi’s leadership in 2005, Democrats in the House minority boycotted a select committee on the response to Hurricane Katrina established by Republicans on the grounds that it was being used to shift blame from the Bush administration to Democratic officials in Louisiana.

A Democratic aide said party leaders are not viewing a potential boycott of the select committee as a political statement. Instead, the aide said it would highlight the Democrats' argument that the Republicans are frittering the quickly shrinking legislative calendar on issues unrelated to jobs, the economy and other matters the public deems more important.

“It would be a statement that this is a colossal waste of time and resources,” the aide said Monday. “Why not do a select committee on jobs?”

— Mike Lillis and Justin Sink contributed.

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