Democrats debate shape of new Jan. 6 probe

House Democrats mulling their next steps for investigating the Capitol attack of Jan. 6 have reached at least one early verdict: Doing nothing is not an option.

Five months after the rampage, Democrats remain shaken by the violence, resentful of Republicans blocking probes into it and devoted to launching a deep-dive examination — even if that means going it alone.

“It’s up to us to figure out how we proceed, but we must proceed,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.). “This is one of the most critical events in American history; this is only the second time the United States Capitol has been under assault physically, and it was from fellow Americans.”

The debate over how to investigate the Jan. 6 attack has shifted internally after Senate Republicans, pressured by former President Trump, blocked bipartisan legislation to create an independent, 9/11-style commission examining the deadly riot. The attack was inspired by Trump’s false claims that the election was stolen, which prompted a mob of his supporters to try to prevent Congress’s certification of his election defeat.

In a call this week with House Democrats, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) floated four different routes Congress could take: have the Senate vote again on the House-passed bill to create an outside commission; form a select House committee, consisting of lawmakers hand-picked by leaders in both parties; allow several sitting committees to continue their probes into Jan. 6; or empower a single House committee, like Homeland Security or Oversight and Reform, to take the lead on the investigation.

Some Democrats who sit on the House Homeland Security Committee argued that their panel should take on an expanded role in the investigation.

“The Homeland Security Committee has been committed, in a bipartisan manner, to finding facts about Jan. 6 and preventing another attack on our Capitol,” Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.) told The Hill on Thursday. “The committee has a long track record of constructive bipartisan work for what’s best for our country.”

After all, it was Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) and New York Rep. John Katko, the panel’s top Republican, who unexpectedly cut a deal last month on legislation to create an independent commission, evenly split with five Democrats and five Republicans and with equal subpoena power. 

Thirty-five Republicans joined all Democrats in passing the bill through the House, even as Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and his leadership team came out against it. That bipartisan vote was a testament to the work of Thompson, a genial, soft-spoken Southerner, and Katko, chairman of a centrist GOP caucus that previously was known as the Tuesday Group.

Other Democrats agreed the Homeland Security Committee should take the investigative lead, noting that the panel would have a head start in probing Jan. 6 and that Thompson and Katko would lend a degree of bipartisan credibility to an issue that’s been plagued by partisanship.

“I’d be open to the two of them working toward accommodation,” said Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.), who serves on the Oversight and Reform and the Intelligence committees. “They’ve shown that they have the desire and the ability to do that.”

The Thompson-Katko bill wasn’t received as well in the Senate. With threats from Trump and an aggressive whip effort by Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Republicans rallied to block the House-passed bill. Yet backers of the Jan. 6 commission came close: Six Republicans crossed the aisle; a seventh, Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), said he would have voted “yes” if he hadn’t missed the vote. 

That meant Democrats came just three votes shy — well within striking distance — of the 60 votes needed to break a GOP filibuster.

Some Democrats think they could pick up three more Republican votes, especially with the mother of Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick, who died after battling rioters on Jan. 6, aggressively lobbying lawmakers to create the commission. And they want Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) to call another vote soon on the House-passed bill.

The creation of a special committee also has its supporters. Pelosi has already formed such panels to examine climate change and the federal response to the coronavirus pandemic. And Republicans had used the concept to potent political effect heading into the 2016 elections, when their select Benghazi committee spent years targeting former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee.

“If Republicans won’t join us to protect our democracy, we have an obligation to do it ourselves,” Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez (D-N.M.), a member of the House Administration Committee, said in pushing for a select committee.

Yet others are warning that formation of a select committee would lend too much power to McCarthy, who has shifted from holding Trump responsible for the Jan. 6 attack to embracing the former president as a crucial ally in the GOP’s effort to flip control of the House in the 2022 midterm elections. In such a case, McCarthy is in line for the Speakership.

“I think McCarthy would probably appoint people from the Sedition Caucus,” said Connolly, referring to the 139 House Republicans who voted to overturn the 2020 election results just hours after the Capitol came under siege.

Although McCarthy was among the first lawmakers to promote a 9/11-style investigation — and delegated Katko to lead the GOP negotiations — he has since reversed course to oppose the concept as “duplicative and potentially counterproductive,” a turnaround that caught even Katko by surprise.

Democrats have rejected the notion that an additional probe would be redundant, pointing to a number of questions surrounding Jan. 6 that remain outstanding. Among those questions are the details of what Trump was doing that day, why he took so long to call off the mob, what exactly was said between Trump and McCarthy during a phone call in the midst of the attack and what communications, if any, members of Congress had with the rioters before and during the rampage.

“I don’t believe the Republicans have much standing, having just defeated having any investigation at all,” said Connolly.

Connolly, for one, is pushing a fifth investigative option: having President Biden, by executive order, create a bipartisan Jan. 6 commission, similar to the Warren Commission that was created by President Lyndon B. Johnson to investigate the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963.

“We’ve had presidential commissions in the past; they command a lot of authority and respect,” Connolly said. “They elevate the issue, and the president could pick known Republicans, as well as Democrats, who are statesmen and stateswomen who care about this country.”

Yet Pelosi has all but ruled out the idea, raising concerns about the lack of subpoena power. And others are citing what they see as another disadvantage to a presidential commission: It would put Biden in the tough spot of investigating someone — Trump — who could potentially be his challenger in 2024.

“The president doesn’t want to get in the middle of this,” Welch told The Hill. “He’s got a day job.”

On Thursday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki also threw cold water on a presidential commission, saying that since Congress was targeted on Jan. 6, it has “a unique role and ability to carry out that investigation.”

Amid the debate, a number of Republican lawmakers are openly denying that there ever was rampant violence at the Capitol on Jan. 6. Others maintain, falsely, that there were no weapons brought into the Capitol that day, while still others contend, also falsely, that the perpetrators were not Trump supporters.

“It wasn’t just right-wing extremists,” Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) told a crowd of conservatives in Texas last weekend.

Such comments have only fueled the indignation of lawmakers who had warned of the dangers surrounding Trump’s election lies — and had feared for their lives on Jan. 6. It’s also stoked the Democrats’ efforts to launch a thorough investigation, with or without GOP support.

“When someone does that, we revisit the issue all over again,” said Connolly. “And it just freshens everybody’s memory about the depths of denial and delusion … and willful enabling of a violent mob and violent actors who plotted this event.”

Tags Bennie Thompson Capitol attack Capitol breach Charles Schumer Donald Trump Gerry Connolly Hillary Clinton Jan. 6 probe Jen Psaki Joe Biden John Katko Josh Gottheimer Kevin McCarthy Louie Gohmert Mitch McConnell Nancy Pelosi Pat Toomey Peter Welch
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