GOP turns against Jan. 6 probe as midterm distraction
Senate Republicans are turning against a commission to investigate the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, warning it would be a distraction heading into the 2022 midterm elections.
The House passed the bill in a 252-175 vote on Wednesday, including support from 35 Republicans, setting up a showdown in the Senate amid hardening battle lines. But even if the same share of Republicans vote for the measure in the Senate, that wouldn’t be enough to get it over the finish line.
GOP senators are under growing pressure to oppose the bill. Former President Trump — who still wields the most influence in the party — is making clear he’s keeping an eye on the debate and the votes.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) voiced his opposition to the legislation on Wednesday, and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who voted against the measure, spoke to a group of Republican senators at a closed-door meeting that same day.
Blocking the bill would undoubtedly generate negative headlines for the GOP and put Republicans in the awkward position of opposing a commission to probe an insurrection many of them have already condemned.
A months-long commission, which Republicans fear would stretch past its year-end deadline, would keep Jan. 6 in the spotlight as the midterms draw near. GOP lawmakers are warning that it would risk keeping them off message when much of the party is eager to talk about almost anything besides the deadly attack.
“I want our midterm message to be … jobs and wages and the economy and national security and safe streets … and not relitigating the 2020 election,” said Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the No. 2 Senate Republican, who hasn’t made a decision on the bill.
“A lot of our members, and I think it is true of a lot of the House Republicans, want to be moving forward. … Anything that gets us rehashing the 2020 election, I think, is a day lost,” Thune added.
Other Republicans appeared to echo Trump’s warning that the legislation — which was negotiated by Rep. John Katko (N.Y.), the top Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee — was designed to be politically damaging to Republicans. The House-passed bill says the commission should wrap by the end of the year, but Republicans questioned if that was a realistic timeline.
“Part of the concern is that’s the plan, that’s [Speaker Nancy] Pelosi’s plan,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said about it potentially spilling over into 2022, while noting he hadn’t made a final decision. “That would be the Democrats’ dream. I generally don’t try to help Democrats.”
Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), when asked if it would be a distraction, quipped: “That may be why they want to do it so badly.”
The growing opposition makes it increasingly unclear where Democrats would be able to get the 10 GOP votes needed to pass the bill in the Senate.
Seven GOP senators previously voted to convict Trump of inciting an insurrection in the wake of the Jan. 6 attack, when a mob of his supporters breached the Capitol building while then-Vice President Mike Pence and lawmakers were counting the Electoral College vote.
But none have yet explicitly backed the House bill. Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) has come the closest.
“I’ve said already that although I’d like to know more about it, I’m inclined to support it. So I’ll leave it at that,” Cassidy said.
Sens. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) have both said they are interested in a commission, but neither has endorsed the legislation. Instead, they are raising concerns about how the panel would be staffed.
The language in the House measure is the same as the bill that created the 9/11 commission, but Republicans are worried it would let Democrats pick the entire staff even though the membership of the panel is evenly split.
Collins, like many of her GOP colleagues, raised concerns that it could spill over into the election year.
“I also think it’s important that this be independent and nonpartisan. And that means that we should make sure that the work is done this year and does not go over into the election year,” Collins told reporters.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) sidestepped multiple questions this week about the House bill. Sens. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) and Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) are undecided. And a spokeswoman for Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday.
Thune, McConnell’s No. 2, hasn’t said how he will vote, and he hasn’t started exploring whether there are 10 GOP “yes” votes in the Senate.
“There are some of our members who I think obviously have an interest in seeing a commission go forward, others who think it would be counterproductive … and that it could be weaponized politically and drawn into next year,” Thune said. “Members are in different places, but I would say there’s a skepticism about what’s happening in the House right now.”
Unlike the House, where Katko helped craft the bill and voted for its passage despite opposition from GOP leaders, there’s no Republican vocally pushing for a commission in the Senate.
Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.), who was a close ally of Trump’s, told reporters that he was “fine” with a commission if it was bipartisan. But while he argued against expanding the scope to include broader political violence — like some Republicans are calling for — he also said that if there is going to be a commission on Jan. 6, there should be a commission on other politically motivated violence, an approach Democrats have rejected.
“I think that probably if you’re going to do one, you need to do both,” Tuberville said.
Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.), after initially suggesting he was open to a commission, told reporters after McConnell’s speech Wednesday and attending the breakfast with McCarthy that he was moving away from supporting it.
“Right now it would appear that under the layout that they’ve got that this probably could not get started with a staff approved until late this year. That’s way too late, way too long,” Rounds said.
McConnell, after keeping his powder dry on Tuesday, informed GOP senators at a breakfast on Wednesday that he would oppose the bill. McCarthy, who voiced his opposition a day earlier, was at the same meeting that included roughly a dozen senators.
“After careful consideration, I’ve made the decision to oppose the House Democrats’ slanted and unbalanced proposal for another commission to study the events of Jan. 6,” McConnell said from the Senate floor.
McConnell has been eager to move past the attack on the Capitol, which he’s condemned, and doesn’t tend to get sideways with the thinking of the majority of his caucus.
“It clarifies things … for all of the rest of us. It gives some direction,” said Cramer. “It’s always instructive when Mitch comes out on a specific piece of legislation.”
Other members of the caucus have been vocal opponents to creating a commission.
“I hope no Republicans in the House vote for this,” Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) said during a Fox News interview. “I hope nobody in the Senate embraces it either.”
Other GOP senators say a new investigation would be redundant because of the ongoing probe by the Senate Rules and Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committees, with senators expecting a report in early June detailing security and intelligence failures from Jan. 6.
“It’s not necessary,” said Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.). “We’ve already been doing the work.”
Sen. Roy Blunt (Mo.), the top Republican on the Rules Committee and a McConnell ally, argued that a commission would “slow up our ability to do the things that we need to do to respond to Jan. 6.”
“I’m not for it. I’ve never been for it,” Blunt said. “I think structurally it has problems.”
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