Democratic clamor grows for select committee on Jan. 6 attack

Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.)
Greg Nash

As Democrats chew on their options for investigating Jan. 6, the select committee is rising to the top.

Party leaders have been mulling a series of strategies for how the House might proceed on its own after the Democrats’ first choice — forming an independent, 9/11-style commission — was blocked by Senate Republicans last month.

As Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) inches closer to her decision, some members have called for the empowerment of a single sitting committee, such as Homeland Security, to take the investigative lead; others want to lend the Senate more time to round up additional support for the outside commission; and still others are urging President Biden to seat an investigative panel of his own.

But the emerging consensus appears to favor a fourth option: the creation of a special committee dedicated to examining the extraordinary and violent attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6.

“Assuming the Senate doesn’t get there, the select committee makes sense because you want to consolidate it,” said Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, which has jurisdiction over portions of the attack. “There’re too many committees that have jurisdiction and would be stepping all over each other.”

If Pelosi has made up her mind on the matter, she’s keeping her choice extremely close to the vest. In recent days, the Speaker has been reaching out to key lawmakers, taking the temperature of her caucus and seeking input on which course Democrats should take, according to lawmakers who have received calls. Publicly, she has said only that her decision will come before Congress leaves Washington for the Fourth of July recess.

“Soon,” she said cryptically Wednesday.

Several Democratic allies said Pelosi had been leaning toward a special committee but that Homeland Security Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) had been aggressively making a case that his panel should take the lead, not least because he and the ranking member, Rep. John Katko (N.Y.), a moderate Republican, had been able to strike a deal on the original bill creating a bipartisan outside Jan. 6 commission.

Katko was also one of just 10 House Republicans to support Trump’s impeachment for inciting the riot, earning the praise of Democrats who’ve been disgusted with Trump’s defenders.

“The attraction with the [Homeland Security panel] is you get Katko, and with the select committee you don’t know who you’re going to get,” said Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.), musing about the advantages of the various options.

One creative solution would be for Pelosi to tap Thompson, a respected, veteran member of the Congressional Black Caucus, as chair of the special committee. It’s an idea that Pelosi is entertaining, sources said. And a number of Democrats are vocally backing that design.

“I’d like to see a commission, but short of that I’d like to see a select committee on Jan. 6, chaired by Bennie Thompson, if possible,” said Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.), a former head of the Black Caucus. “[He’s] chair of Homeland Security, institutional knowledge — he would be the perfect one to chair it.”

To be sure, the Democrats’ favored option is to have Congress form an independent, 9/11-style commission to investigate the causes of the attack of Jan. 6, when thousands of Trump supporters, roused by Trump’s false claims of a stolen election, marched on the Capitol in an effort to block Congress from certifying his defeat. Seven people died in connection to the rampage, and roughly 140 police officers were injured while sparring with the rioters.

The House passed the Thompson-Katko bill last month with support from 35 Republicans, but the Senate fell three votes short of the 60 needed to send it to President Biden’s desk. Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) are busy trying to convince three of their GOP colleagues to reconsider. But that likelihood appears more remote with each passing day, and House Democrats, growing impatient with the waiting game, are ready to strike out on their own.

“It just seems like on everything the Republicans are just trying to drag everything out, slow everything down, and people are getting very frustrated with it all,” said one Democratic lawmaker supporting the House select committee. “The Speaker’s losing patience.”

In a select committee, Democrats see several advantages over the sitting committees. For one thing, a special panel would be singularly focused on the events of Jan. 6, without the distraction of the countless other issues the sitting committees oversee. It would also empower Democratic leaders to dictate the ground rules of the investigation, including the scope, the numerical composition of members, the parameters surrounding the panel’s subpoena powers and the timeline for ending the probe.

A select committee could “move more quickly” than the Homeland Security panel, said one Democrat who prosecuted Trump’s involvement in the Jan. 6 attack during the Senate impeachment trial.

Driving the Democrats’ zeal for a separate investigation, a number of Trump’s Republican allies are now downplaying the violence of Jan. 6, rejecting the notion that the riot was an “insurrection” and accusing Democrats of pushing the probe merely to bash Republicans politically. One GOP lawmaker, Rep. Andrew Clyde (Ga.), has equated the rampage to a “normal tourist visit.”

Republicans are familiar with the political potency of forming such a select committee. Their special investigation into the deadly attack on a U.S. consulate in Benghazi spanned more than two years, kept the heat on former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and was thought to be a factor in her loss to Trump in the presidential contest of 2016.

For the Democrats framing Jan. 6 as an existential attack on U.S. democracy, however, the investigation into how it came about has taken on a special urgency. Some say the realization of a comprehensive probe is more important than the particular form it takes.

“I’d like to see the select committee,” said Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio). But whatever leadership decides is fine, he added, “as long as somebody’s really bulldogging the thing.”

Tags Adam Smith Bennie Thompson Capitol breach Capitol riot commission Dan Kildee Donald Trump G.K. Butterfield Hillary Clinton insurrection January 6 Joe Biden Joe Manchin John Katko Nancy Pelosi special committee Susan Collins Tim Ryan

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