Jan. 6 commission faces new hurdles in Senate
A bill that would create a 9/11-style commission to probe the Jan. 6 Capitol attack is facing headwinds in the Senate, as Republicans mull whether to block it.
The House will send the measure to the Senate as soon as Wednesday. But the decision by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) on Tuesday to come out in opposition is throwing a curveball into the legislation’s chances of making it to President Biden’s desk.
Senate Republicans are split over the commission, raising questions about the bill’s prospects of surviving a potential GOP filibuster.
Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the No. 2 Senate Republican, described the bill’s chances as a “little more uncertain” in the wake of McCarthy’s opposition to legislation that was negotiated by Rep. John Katko (N.Y.), the top Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee.
“It sounds like the wheels have kind of come off. … So I guess the question is, you know, what’s the vote look like? Are Republicans supportive of it? Some Republicans supportive of it? That’s why I think … we’re sort of in a wait-and-see posture,” Thune said of Senate Republicans watching their House counterparts.
After months of negotiations, House lawmakers announced late last week that they had a bipartisan agreement to form a commission focused on the Jan. 6 attack. The commission members would be evenly divided between the parties, a shift from an earlier proposal from Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) that would have given Democrats more seats.
But what appeared like a major breakthrough has been marred by the GOP infighting, with a growing number of Republicans eager to move past talking about the Capitol attack, when a pro-Trump mob breached the building. A commission would likely keep that topic in the spotlight for months.
Senate Republicans won’t be able to dodge the issue, though, since Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) pledged to hold a vote on the bill.
“We’ll see what the House vote is like, but I want to be clear: I will put the Jan. 6 commission legislation on the floor of the Senate for a vote. Period,” Schumer said.
House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) declined to make predictions about the bill’s chances of success in the Senate.
“I learned a long time ago not to count your chickens before they’ve hatched. So I’ll just leave it at that,” he said.
The eventual Senate vote could put Republicans in a politically awkward position. Blocking the bill would mark their first successful filibuster this Congress, but of a bill tied to an insurrection that many of them have publicly condemned.
Even after McCarthy came out against the bill, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) didn’t completely close the door on GOP senators supporting it.
“I think I’m safe in characterizing our conference as willing to listen to the arguments about whether such a commission is needed,” McConnell told reporters after a closed-door caucus meeting.
“It’s safe for you to report that we are undecided,” he added.
Thune has said that he is supportive of a Jan. 6 commission and suggested that Senate Republicans could be brought on board under the right circumstances.
“It’s hard to predict exactly what the Senate might do, but I think there are a number of Republican senators who believe those events ought to be looked at,” Thune said.
If all Democrats supported the bill it would need 10 Republicans to overcome a filibuster. Seven GOP senators previously voted to convict former President Trump of inciting an insurrection, a potential preview of where Democrats are starting as they try to round up support across the aisle.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) sidestepped multiple questions about a commission from reporters but appeared to signal in a separate interview that Trump was fair game if the legislation makes Jan. 6 the focus.
“If you put together a commission that is focused on the events of Jan. 6, I think he’s obviously a very key individual,” Murkowski told CNN.
Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) also argued against expanding the scope of the commission.
“The key thing that needs to be associated with this effort would be the attack on this building,” Romney said.
Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) — who unlike Romney and Murkowski did not vote to convict Trump — said he was “fine” with a commission as long as it was bipartisan.
“First of all, I think we need to do Jan. 6, just simply the fact that, you know, we’re holding our country back, and people from coming up here,” Tuberville said, questioning whether the commission should “mix” the Capitol attack with other riots.
But the idea of a commission focused squarely on Jan. 6 has high-profile skeptics in the Senate GOP caucus. And that skepticism comes as senators are also grappling with a $1.9 billion spending bill to beef up security around the Capitol in the wake of the January attack.
“I’m not against having a commission, but I think for that to get my support it’s going to have to broaden its scope,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley (Iowa), the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), an adviser to McConnell, said Congress should “do something to identify the problem,” but argued that it was “unnecessary” to limit the scope to Jan. 6.
“I do think we shouldn’t restrict their investigation. We ought to let them follow the evidence wherever it may lead,” he told reporters.
McConnell sidestepped questions about the scope of the commission on Tuesday, in a shift from his previous comments that it should look at other forms of political activities including protests, some of which turned violent, last year in the wake of police killings.
Instead, McConnell pointed to questions about how staff for the commission would be hired. Republicans are concerned the current language would effectively give Democrats the hiring power, potentially injecting partisanship into the panel even if the political makeup of the members is evenly divided.
Other Senate Republicans are questioning if the commission would be redundant. In addition to sprawling FBI and Justice Department probes, there’s also a months-long bipartisan probe being conducted by the Senate Rules and Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committees.
“On the basic notion of commissions, I’m not against them but I always wish the committees could work,” said Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), noting that the two Senate committees were already pretty far along in their probes.
Sen. Roy Blunt (Mo.), the top Republican on the Rules Committee, also questioned the need for a new commission.
“I think a commission will actually slow down us doing the things we know we need to do,” Blunt said. “I think the bipartisan report that was mentioned … is a good place to start looking at what we ought to do. And, frankly, I don’t think there are that many gaps to be filled in what happened on January the sixth as it relates to building security.”
Cristina Marcos contributed.