GOP gambles with Pelosi in opposing Jan. 6 commission
Republicans are lining up to block the creation of an independent panel to investigate the Capitol attack of Jan. 6. But the strategy is not without risks.
While sinking the commission would satisfy the Republicans’ short-term objective of appeasing former President Trump, it would almost certainly prompt Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to launch a special investigation of her own — one that could play to the long-term advantage of Democrats heading into the 2022 midterms.
Not only would a select committee allow the majority Democrats to steer the process, including decisions surrounding the issuance of subpoenas. It would also empower Pelosi to extend the investigation well into next year, heightening the political potency of its findings ahead of elections when control of both chambers is up for grabs and Republicans are eyeing a return to power.
Those dynamics have not been overlooked by some GOP lawmakers, who are pressing for the outside investigation as the GOP’s best chance to examine the events of Jan. 6 without the partisan leanings of a congressional probe.
“Without the commission, where conservatives are guaranteed an equal voice, Democrats like [Rep. Jerry] Nadler [D-N.Y.], [Rep. Adam] Schiff [D-Calif.] and Pelosi will be driving the narrative in a Dem-led investigation just like they’ve done in the past,” said Rep. Stephanie Bice, a first-term Oklahoma Republican who voted in favor of the commission.
Negotiating on behalf of House Republicans, Rep. John Katko (R-N.Y.) had fought successfully to diminish any partisan edge surrounding the Jan. 6 investigative panel, which was modeled on the 9/11 commission. In crafting legislation with Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), Katko secured requirements for equal representation on the commission, bipartisan support for subpoenas and a sunset date of Dec. 31, more than 10 months before midterm voters head to the polls.
Yet that proposal was rejected by House Republican leaders, including Rep. Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), who said that, despite Katko’s efforts, it was overly partisan and would duplicate other investigations into Jan. 6.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is also opposed it, saying the House proposal, which passed last week with help from 35 Republicans, is “slanted and unbalanced.”
McConnell’s position has led other Senate Republicans to announce their opposition and dimmed the prospects that the bill can win over the 10 GOP senators needed to defeat a filibuster and send the proposal to President Biden’s desk.
“This commission could go on for years, and so I don’t think it’s necessary,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said Tuesday.
Only two Senate Republicans have come out in support of the House legislation: Sens. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), both of whom had voted to convict Trump of inciting the Jan. 6 attack during his impeachment trial in February.
A third Republican, Sen. Susan Collins (Maine), is also supportive of the commission concept but wants to tweak the House language to address staffing concerns and other “flaws” she sees in the initial bill.
Even with those changes, however, the legislation faces a steep climb in the Senate, where Republican opponents appear to have the numbers to block it.
“This thing’s just got politics written all over it,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). “Anything in this election cycle is probably not gonna work, and it seems to me that people are already playing it as a political weapon.”
Yet GOP proponents of the commission are warning that the real political weapon would be a select committee, created by Pelosi, led by Democrats and conducted by sitting lawmakers.
“We are left with only two choices: a bipartisan investigation with an equal number of Republicans and Democrats or a Pelosi commission focused on repeating the media’s narrative,” Rep. Trey Hollingsworth (R-Ind.) said after voting in favor of the commission.
“That’s an easy choice for me,” he added.
Republicans are well acquainted with the political power of public investigations into political rivals in pivotal election years.
In 2014, they created a special panel to examine Hillary Clinton’s role in the deadly 2012 attack on a U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. Clinton, the former secretary of State, later became the Democratic’ presidential nominee, and the long-drawn investigation — which generated headlines through the length of the 2016 campaign — was thought to be a factor in her defeat to Trump.
Five weeks after that election, Republicans disbanded the Benghazi panel.
GOP lawmakers are pointing to another reason an independent commission might prove advantageous to Republicans: They suspect Pelosi was more involved in the Jan. 6 security planning than she’s acknowledged, and they want the outside investigators to reveal any shortcomings in her security designs.
“Many unanswered questions remain — not the least of which are decisions out of the Speaker’s office regarding actionable intelligence apparently ignored prior to the event,” said Rep. Steve Womack (R-Ark.), explaining his “yes” vote on the commission. “We need those answers.”
Pelosi, for her part, has continued pressing for the 9/11-style commission even as opposition has mounted in the Senate.
“I don’t want to weaken that position,” she said last week.
But she’s also hinted that plan B would be the creation of a select congressional committee, which would almost certainly give her more control over the process.
“Everybody knows what my options are. They are no secret,” she said.
To Pelosi’s advantage, the commission issue is not controversial among Democrats.
House Democrats voted unanimously last week to approve the Thompson-Katko bill. And the party’s Senate centrists, Joe Manchin (W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.), are pressing Republicans to get on board, forecasting a similar Democratic unity in the upper chamber when the bill comes to the floor, which is expected as early as this week.
For Republicans, Jan. 6 is a much thornier issue.
Not only was the attack carried out by Trump supporters hoping to block Biden’s victory, but the former president retains enormous popularity among GOP voters, the majority of whom have embraced his false claims that he’s the rightful president. Indeed, a new Ipsos-Reuters poll found that 53 percent of Republican voters think the election was stolen from Trump.
“I always knew America was smart!” he said Tuesday in a statement.
Trump has denied any role in the Jan. 6 attack and opposes any exploration of the events leading up to it, which has piled additional pressure on Republicans to reject the independent commission working its way through Congress. And even Sen. Richard Burr (N.C.), one of the seven Senate Republicans to support Trump’s impeachment, has announced his opposition.
“It sounds like a political exercise to me,” Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) said Tuesday.
For those Republicans promoting the legislation, however, an outside commission is the party’s last best shot at getting a fair shake in an investigative process that’s certain to proceed even without it.
“This commission is not about President Trump,” said Bice. “This is about the lack of oversight at the Capitol, ensuring such an event never happens again and that conservatives have an equal say in the process.”