McCarthy, McConnell drive over their lieutenants to stop bipartisan Jan. 6 commission

McCarthy, McConnell drive over their lieutenants to stop bipartisan Jan. 6 commission
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In quick succession last week, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin McCarthyHas Trump beaten the system? Yellen to Congress: Raise the debt ceiling or risk 'irreparable harm' Freedom Caucus presses McCarthy to force vote to oust Pelosi MORE (R-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellHas Trump beaten the system? Yellen to Congress: Raise the debt ceiling or risk 'irreparable harm' The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Goldman Sachs - Tokyo Olympics kick off with 2020-style opening ceremony MORE (R-Ky.) each pulled the rug out from under his own caucus’ high-ranking members by announcing opposition to a bipartisan Jan. 6 commission. Their switch only partially worked: 35 House Republicans broke rank, voting with Democrats to create the commission.

Earlier this year, McCarthy had dispatched House Homeland Security Committee ranking member Rep. John KatkoJohn Michael KatkoSenators introduce bipartisan bill to secure critical groups against hackers House erupts in anger over Jan. 6 and Trump's role McCarthy yanks all GOP picks from Jan. 6 committee MORE (R-N.Y.) to negotiate with Chair Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.) on legislation setting up a commission. McCarthy may not have expected Katko to deliver Democrats' concessions, but he did. Then on May 18, McCarthy announced he couldn’t support the agreement.

McConnell allowed his deputy, Sen. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneFrustration builds as infrastructure talks drag On The Money: Senate braces for nasty debt ceiling fight | Democrats pushing for changes to bipartisan deal | Housing prices hit new high in June Transit funding, broadband holding up infrastructure deal MORE (R-S.D.), to state on May 17 that the commission bill would pass the Senate “in some form.” The next day, Sen. Mike RoundsMike RoundsBipartisan group says it's still on track after setback on Senate floor Schumer sets up key vote on bipartisan deal Graham: Bipartisan infrastructure pay-fors are insufficient MORE (R-S.D.) stated unequivocally, “I don’t want [the Jan. 6 insurrection] swept under any rug.” In McConnell’s Republican caucus, Senators don’t usually issue such statements without checking with him.

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But on May 19, McConnell announced his opposition. Thune and Rounds quickly changed their tunes.

McCarthy’s and McConnell’s decisions to publicly undercut caucus members had nothing to do with principle, everything to do with power. Both leader’s focus is on majority leadership. The route runs through Donald TrumpDonald TrumpPoll: 73 percent of Democratic voters would consider voting for Biden in the 2024 primary Biden flexes presidential muscle on campaign trail with Virginia's McAuliffe Has Trump beaten the system? MORE. He unsubtly threatened their aspirations on May 18 when he lambasted the commission bill, saying, “Hopefully Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy are listening.”

How can we tell that McCarthy and McConnell are not acting out of logic or belief? Their rationales stand up to neither reason nor history.

McCarthy’s purported explanation was that a commission would “duplicate” prosecutions of the Jan. 6 rioters. But unlike prosecutions, commissions recommend measures to prevent recurrences, as the 9/11 Commission did successfully with its recommendations of 100 percent airline passenger screening and creating a Department of Homeland Security. Tellingly, no one complained of duplication by the 9/11 Commission and prosecuting the 9/11 terrorist surviving co-conspirator.

McCarthy also said the commission bill failed to allow investigating other acts of “violence” from the George Floyd protests, or the 2017 shooting of Rep. Steve ScaliseStephen (Steve) Joseph ScaliseThe Hill's Morning Report - Pelosi considers adding GOP voices to Jan. 6 panel McConnell pushes vaccines, but GOP muddles his message Overnight Health Care: Biden officials says no change to masking guidance right now | Missouri Supreme Court rules in favor of Medicaid expansion | Mississippi's attorney general asks Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade MORE (R-La.). Of course, those events are not remotely equivalent to a mob’s riot in the U.S. Capitol aimed at stopping Congress from constitutionally certifying an election.

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McConnell argued that the Commission would duplicate on-going Congressional investigations. But the 9/11 Commission and Congress both investigated the 9/11 terrorist attack.

Equally revealing is the contrasting behavior of principled Republicans outside McCarthy’s and McConnell’s reach. Former Republican New Jersey Gov. Tom Kean, who co-chaired the 9/11 Commission, has expressed support for the Jan. 6 Commission. Former GOP Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) has also spoken out in support of the bipartisan commission.  Arizona Republican leaders in Maricopa County stood “up for what is right” and resisted Trump, opposing the “unhinged” audit that he endorsed of the county’s 2020 election ballots.

Time will tell how McCarthy’s and McConnell’s power play unfolds. They lost an opportunity to look bipartisan. They risk Sen. Joe ManchinJoe ManchinWhy Biden's Interior Department isn't shutting down oil and gas Overnight Energy: Senate panel advances controversial public lands nominee | Nevada Democrat introduces bill requiring feds to develop fire management plan | NJ requiring public water systems to replace lead pipes in 10 years Transit funding, broadband holding up infrastructure deal MORE (D-W.Va.) losing patience with bipartisanship as his argument for supporting the filibuster.

Further, tying one’s future to Trump is risky if he is indicted in New York or Georgia, where serious investigations are underway. McCarthy and McConnell have put their money on a political bully at the expense of truth. That bet didn’t work out well in 1953 for supporters of Sen. Joseph McCarthy.

With a Senate vote on the commission soon to come, McConnell’s hold on his caucus may dispirit accountability proponents. If the bill fails in the Senate, Democrats, having tried mightily for bipartisanship, can appoint a traditional Congressional Select Committee, as they did in Watergate or with the Iran-Contra scandal during the Reagan era. That way, they could pursue the truth without an impossible six-month timeline, as Republicans required in the pending bill.

As Georgia’s Republican Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, a Trump critic, recently put it: “It always feels coldest before the sun rises.”

Dennis Aftergut is a former federal prosecutor.