Partisan headwinds threaten Capitol riot commission

Plans for a 9/11-style commission to probe the Jan. 6 attack are running into partisan stumbling blocks in Congress.

House Democrats are hoping to vote on legislation establishing the investigative panel before they leave town in mid-March, giving them a matter of days to try to reach a deal with Republicans.

But clashes among congressional leaders over both the structure and scope of the panel are threatening to derail the commission before it even gets underway.

"I think a commission is a good idea but it can't be a partisan commission," said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee and an adviser to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and McConnell briefly spoke about the idea of an independent commission on Tuesday night at a ceremony for the 500,000 Americans who have died from the coronavirus, a source confirmed to The Hill.

Pelosi later pledged during her weekly press conference that she would do "anything to have it be bipartisan."

But so far, a draft bill has come under fire from Republicans, whose support will be needed in the Senate in order to establish the commission. There is also public skepticism from some Democrats and leaders of the 9/11 panel that Pelosi is citing as a model.

Those tensions have resulted in a back-and-forth of high-profile barbs after McConnell appeared to pour cold water on much of Pelosi's draft legislation, a copy of which had been shared with his staff.

"An inquiry with a hard-wired partisan slant would never be legitimate in the eyes of the American people. An undertaking that is uneven or unjust would not help our country," McConnell said.

Pelosi fired back during her press conference that she was "disappointed" by the GOP leader's remarks.

"In my brief conversation with him on this subject, I had the impression that he wanted to have a Jan. 6, similar to 9/11, commission, but what he said ... was really a departure from that," she said.

Pelosi also jabbed at Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) - who has suggested the Capitol attack was carried out, at least in part, by "provocateurs" and "fake Trump protesters"- by calling him "Don Johnson."

Republicans insist they are open to supporting the formation of a commission, as long as both parties would get to appoint the same number of members.

"I'd be supportive of a commission only if it had the broad, bipartisan quality of the 9/11 commission," said Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), who added that it had to be equally split between Democrats and Republicans.

Cornyn, who said the panel's scope should be "negotiated," specified that "a red line is it can't be a ... political commission. It needs to be evenly divided and we need to get serious people on it."

Under the draft bill, Republicans would appoint four members of the commission compared to seven for Democrats. None of the members would be lawmakers or government officials.

Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) told CNN's "New Day" that he believes the seats should be split 50-50 between the parties, similar to the 9/11 commission.

"The leaders of the 9/11 Commission have said that part of why it was so successful was that it was even, it was balanced, and it was led by folks who were well respected and well regarded, who had a reputation for working across the aisle. ...I think it's important that we have a balanced Jan. 6 commission," Coons said.

Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) declined to weigh in on whether he thought the panel should be evenly divided, instead telling reporters: "I think we need it to get to the bottom of what happened ... and it should be fearless."

But Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), his No. 2, told reporters that he thought the commission needed to be "balanced."

"I'd like to suggest that it be balanced," Durbin said, adding that, similar to the 9/11 commission, the two top leaders should be "widely respected."

"Once you have that as a starting point good things happen," he said.

Durbin was referring to Tom Kean and Lee Hamilton, the top Republican and Democrat, respectively, on the 9/11 commission, who have also publicly warned against having uneven representation on the Jan. 6 commission.

Hamilton, during an interview with Politico Playbook, said unequal distribution sounds "like a partisan beginning," while Keane added that without both parties getting the same number of seats "the report won't have as much confidence from the American people."

House Democrats, however, say they are concerned about giving too much power to Republicans, some of whom supported the effort in Congress to challenge the election results.

"I think there has been a lot of rationalization that's going on. I think 43 senators rationalize what they knew to be a clearly a transgression of the president's responsibilities as [Rep.] Liz Cheney [R-Wyo.] said, graver than any other president in history. And nevertheless rationalized they didn't have the authority to hold the president accountable," House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) told reporters.

All but seven GOP senators voted to acquit Trump at the end of his impeachment trial earlier this month. The caucus, after fuming at him in the wake of the attack, also appears increasingly to be trying to defuse tensions with the former president heading into 2022.

Pelosi pointed to the disagreements about how seats are allocated as a solvable roadblock for the commission legislation.

"That is easily negotiated," Pelosi said.

And Democratic Caucus Vice Chair Pete Aguilar (Calif.) characterized the discussions so far on the commission as "initial outreach" and an "opening discussion."

But Democrats defended their proposal on how to name the commissioners, noting that the president wouldn't have to appoint Democrats. A senior House Democratic aide also noted this week that while they had given a draft to House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), they hadn't yet received formal edits back.

"It isn't unusual to give the president - and we don't talk about Democrats and Republicans. These could be independents, they could all be one," Pelosi said.

The bigger sticking points, Pelosi argued, are divisions between what Democrats believe the focus of the investigation should be and what Republicans are pushing for.

"If you don't know your way, if you don't have your purpose ... then the rest of it is not the important part of the conversation," she said.

Pelosi laid out the scope of the commission in a "Dear Colleague" letter, saying it would "investigate and report on the facts and causes relating to the January 6, 2021 domestic terrorist attack upon the United States Capitol Complex."

The commission, according to Pelosi's letter, would also dig into issues "relating to the interference with the peaceful transfer of power, including facts and causes relating to the preparedness and response of the United States Capitol Police and other Federal, State, and local law enforcement" in and around the nation's capital.

But McConnell appeared to object to that, suggesting that he could either support a probe narrowly focused on the Capitol or a broader probe on the "political violence problem."

"We cannot have artificial cherry-picking of which terrible behavior does and does not deserve scrutiny," he said, while also raising a red flag over language that would allow the chair of the commission to issue subpoenas.

McConnell's remarks appeared to hint that Republicans would want to look at things like the protest and riots in the wake of George Floyd's May 25 death, which they've raised as they've faced questions about the violent mob of former President Trump's supporters who breached the Capitol on Jan. 6.

But that's a non-starter for Democrats, who have raised concerns that Republicans would try to use the committee to shield Trump, who claimed for months that the election was "stolen" and urged his supporters to gather in Washington.

"We have a domestic terrorism challenge in this country," Pelosi said."That's what the director of the FBI testified to the end of September. Domestic violence taking more lives than international violence in this country and the biggest number since Oklahoma City."