McCarthy, McConnell drive over their lieutenants to stop bipartisan Jan. 6 commission
In quick succession last week, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (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 Katko (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 Thune (R-S.D.), to state on May 17 that the commission bill would pass the Senate “in some form.” The next day, Sen. Mike Rounds (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.
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 Trump. 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 Scalise (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.
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 Manchin (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.