clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

A bipartisan January 6 commission is probably dead. Democrats have a backup plan.

A House committee could be less vulnerable to GOP obstruction.

A man in a blue Trump/Pence hat and red MAGA bandana stands amid red smoke, emitting from a smoke grenade, in front of the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C. A mob of supporters of outgoing President Donald Trump breached the building on Jan. 6, 2021.
A smoke grenade goes off in front of the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C. during a Jan. 6 demonstration by supporters of outgoing President Donald Trump. 
Eric Lee/Bloomberg/Getty

After hopes for a bipartisan January 6 commission went down in flames on Friday, Democrats may have a new plan to investigate the attack on the Capitol: A select House committee, which would not require Republican support to establish.

Such a committee would differ from the proposed bipartisan commission in several key ways, but it could still take steps to ensure accountability for those involved in the insurrection. Notably, a select committee would be composed of members of Congress rather than outside experts, and the subpoena power would function differently — but, crucially, it could also be created with only a simple majority vote in the House.

At the same time, a select committee could cast an inescapable partisan shadow over the investigation — and the failure of the independent commission bill underscores the alarming depths of Republican fealty to the Big Lie.

Several Democratic members of the House have publicly voiced their support for the backup plan, which follows the defeat on Friday of the bipartisan commission bill in a 54-35 vote. The bill would have needed 60 votes to bypass the controversial Senate filibuster.

For her part, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) hasn’t publicly declared her next move. But in a statement released after Senate Republicans successfully filibustered the bipartisan commission bill on Friday, Pelosi pledged that “Democrats will proceed to find the truth.”

“Leader McConnell and Senate Republicans’ denial of the truth of the January 6th insurrection brings shame to the Senate,” she said. “Republicans’ cowardice in rejecting the truth of that dark day makes our Capitol and our country less safe.”

Speaker Pelosi Holds Weekly Media Briefing On Capitol Hill
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi following a May 20 press conference at the US Capitol.
Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

Other Democrats have been more vocal in support of a select committee: Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-TX), who served as an impeachment manager in former President Donald Trump’s second impeachment trial earlier this year, told CNN’s Manu Raju Friday that, with the failure of the commission bill, “Congress should create a select committee to fully investigate the causes and consequences of the insurrection on January 6.”

And Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA) tweeted his support of a select committee Friday: “Mitch McConnell thinks he can stop the full truth from coming out. He cannot,” Lieu wrote. “The House can empower a bipartisan select congressional committee to investigate the insurrection.”

Previously, a bill to establish an independent January 6 commission passed the House by a bipartisan margin, with every Democrat and 35 Republicans voting for the measure.

That bill was the product of bipartisan negotiations between House Homeland Security Committee chair Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS) and ranking member Rep. John Katko (R-NY), but was opposed by House GOP leadership.

Gladys Sicknick, the mother of Capitol Police officer Brian Sicknick, who died the day after the Capitol attack, also made an emotional plea for lawmakers to support the bill, along with her son’s partner, Sandra Garza.

“Not having a January 6 Commission to look into exactly what occurred is a slap in the faces of all the officers who did their jobs that day,” Gladys Sicknick told Politico in a statement this week. “I suggest that all Congressmen and Senators who are against this Bill visit my son’s grave in Arlington National Cemetery and, while there, think about what their hurtful decisions will do to those officers who will be there for them going forward.”

But though six Republican senators joined every Democrat present to support the bill on Friday, it didn’t clear the 60-vote threshold needed to override the filibuster.

Eleven senators, including two Democrats, did not cast a vote — which essentially amounted to a “no” vote, given the filibuster rules. All told, the measure actually garnered less GOP support than did the February effort to convict former President Trump of inciting insurrection (he was ultimately acquitted).

January 6th Commission Visit
Gladys Sicknick, Sandra Garza, and DC Metropolitan Police officer Michael Fanone, who was injured on January 6, arrive to a May 27 meeting in support of a commission to investigate the Capitol attack.
Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc/Getty Images

A select committee could ensure less GOP obstruction during the investigation

Technically, filibuster reform — an oft-discussed option that President Joe Biden has flirted with — would allow Democrats, who hold the slimmest possible majority in the Senate, to advance this bill and other contentious priorities. But at least one Democratic senator — West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, the usual suspect — has already said that eliminating the filibuster to pass the January 6 commission bill is off-limits, so Friday’s failed vote is almost certainly the end of the line for the bipartisan commission plan.

In the absence of procedural changes, then, it’s most likely select committee time in the House — and there are some key differences between the two plans, including several which could work in Democrats’ favor.

First and foremost, the makeup of a potential select committee would differ substantially from the original commission proposal. Under the commission plan produced by Thompson and Katko earlier this month, which resembled the bipartisan commission created following the 9/11 attacks, commissioners would have been required to have “significant expertise in the areas of law enforcement, civil rights, civil liberties, privacy, intelligence, and cybersecurity” — and no sitting members of Congress would have been allowed to serve on the commission.

Additionally, Democratic and Republican leadership would have been allowed to choose an equal number of commissioners — five apiece, 10 total — with the commission chair appointed by Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and the vice chair appointed by Republican leadership.

When it comes to a select committee, none of that is true. As a House committee, the group’s entire roster would by definition be composed of House members, and there’s no requirement for an equal number of members from each party; its partisan balance could be determined by Democratic leadership in the establishing resolution.

Significantly, that also means there could be fewer prospects for GOP obstruction in a select committee. In contrast to the defeated plan for an independent investigative commission, where use of the subpoena power would have required either majority support or agreement between the chair and vice chair — in other words, bipartisan agreement — Democrats on a select committee would be perfectly able to wield unilateral subpoena power.

That’s a big deal because, as Vox’s Andrew Prokop wrote earlier this week, it’s more than likely that House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) would have staffed their side of a potential commission with commissioners “prone to obstruct and object.” With a select committee, though, Democrats can look forward to the prospect of unobstructed action.

Indeed, some Republicans voted for the bipartisan commission on Friday with the logic that blocking an independent commission would ultimately be worse for the GOP.

“Without this commission, there will still be an investigation,” Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-LA) said in a statement Friday explaining his vote in favor of the commission. “But it will be a House select-committee set up by Speaker Pelosi — the nature of which will be entirely dictated by Democrats and would stretch on for years.”

“We can be more confident that the independent commission would thoroughly investigate this issue [of the lack of adequate security at the Capitol],” he added.

Capitol insurrection January 6, 2021
Capitol Police defend both sides of a US Capitol door on January 6, 2021 as rioters fight to gain access to the Capitol.
Amanda Voisard/The Washington Post/Getty Images

A House committee may face criticism for being partisan

There are also drawbacks to a select committee, however — some very real, and some still hypothetical.

In the “real” column, there’s plenty of reason for Democrats to be worried about McCarthy’s potential choices for Republican membership on a select committee. Though GOP members won’t have as much power to obstruct as they might in an evenly-split independent commission, they could still do their best to turn the committee into a circus — and/or spend their time ranting about antifa and unrelated protest movements.

And with GOP House members like Reps. Andrew Clyde (R-GA), Louie Gohmert (R-TX), and Paul Gosar (R-AZ), to name just a few, already engaged in full-blown insurrection apologia, it’s hard to see how the GOP conference would participate in a select committee in good faith.

Another concern when it comes to a select committee versus an independent commission is the potential appearance of partisan intent, which could make the findings of a select committee easier to discredit.

CNN’s Manu Raju writes, “Senate Republicans who opposed the commission said that if Pelosi goes that [select committee] route, it would be easier to contend that such a probe would be geared at helping Democrats in the 2022 midterm elections.”

That’s possible, of course — and it’s certainly what Republicans will claim at the top of their lungs. But it’s less clear how much of a difference it will really make.

For one, there’s a good chance Republicans would have taken the same line on the independent investigative commission. Though that plan was the product of bipartisan negotiation and had bipartisan, bicameral support, GOP opponents were already attacking it as partisan before blocking it for good on Friday.

“[The January 6 commission] isn’t designed to produce a serious inquiry,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) tweeted last week. “It’s designed to be used as [a] partisan political weapon.”

Additionally, as Washington Post political reporter Dave Weigel pointed out on Twitter Thursday, the findings of an independent investigative committee may well not carry any more weight with voters than those of a select committee.

“The idea that a commission or investigation must be bipartisan or voters won’t take it seriously exists in DC and vanishes once you step outside of it,” he tweeted.

Republicans really don’t want to investigate the January 6 attack

Beyond the specific pros and cons of a select committee versus an independent commission, the Friday defeat of the commission bill proves more than ever why it’s important to proceed with an investigation of the January 6 attack.

Specifically, the GOP’s grab bag of excuses for opposing the commission — that it was too partisan, or too narrow in scope, or simply redundant, to name just a few — all ring rather hollow. They obscure the real reason for Republican opposition to an investigation: the need to continue promoting the Big Lie — the utterly false claim that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump.

Pro-Trump “Stop The Steal” Rally Held At Oregon State Capitol
An Oregon protester at a “Stop the Steal” rally on November 7, 2020, where Trump supporters protested against President Joe Biden’s election win.
Nathan Howard/Getty Images

As Vox’s Zack Beauchamp wrote earlier this month, the Big Lie is increasingly the GOP’s one and only animating idea. To revisit the horror of the January 6 attack, not to mention its precipitating causes, would fly in the face of party doctrine — and potentially implicate Trump’s allies in Congress for supporting and spreading inflammatory misinformation.

As Beauchamp points out,

Polling has consistently found Republican voters take Trump’s view of the election. An April poll from Reuters/Ipsos is a representative example: It found that 60 percent of Republicans agreed that “the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump,” with 55 percent saying the result came from “illegal voting or election rigging.”

From top to bottom, the GOP has been conquered by the Big Lie. Much as North Korean state press proclaims that Kim Jong Il invented the hamburger, Republicans must now proclaim there was something fishy about Joe Biden’s victory.

The result of that conquest has been a full-fledged effort by the GOP conference to whitewash the Capitol attack, which left five people dead and at least 140 police officers wounded. Increasingly, Republicans have pushed the envelope further and further in denying what happened on January 6, with party members like Rep. Andrew Clyde, a Georgia Republican, comparing the insurrection to “a normal tourist visit.”

“Watching the TV footage of those who entered the Capitol and walked through Statuary Hall showed people in an orderly fashion staying between the stanchions and ropes, taking videos and pictures,” Clyde said earlier this month in a committee hearing. “You know, if you didn’t know the TV footage was a video from January the 6th, you would actually think it was a normal tourist visit.”

The GOP stands to benefit from obfuscating the causes — and consequences — of January 6

As Punchbowl News founder Jake Sherman points out, Clyde’s claim is “bonkers.” But Clyde is by no means alone, and even those Republicans who haven’t gone quite so far over the cliff have made a cynical calculation that getting to the bottom of the January 6 attack is less important than winning back power in the 2022 midterms.

“I want our midterm message to be on the kinds of things that the American people are dealing with: That’s jobs and wages and the economy and national security, safe streets and strong borders — not relitigating the 2020 elections,” Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-SD) told CNN earlier this month. “A lot of our members, and I think this is true of a lot of House Republicans, want to be moving forward and not looking backward.”

Thune’s argument, however, misses the point: An independent commission — or a select committee, now that Thune and his colleagues have defeated the commission plan — wouldn’t be dedicated to relitigating the election (though Republicans in Arizona and elsewhere seem bent on doing so endlessly).

Rather, moving forward without dealing more thoroughly with the events of January 6 would give free rein to the not-insignificant portion of the GOP that is now pretending the insurrection wasn’t all that bad, and to the even larger cohort of Republicans dedicated to perpetuating the Big Lie that fueled the attack.

“To be making a decision for the short-term political gain at the expense of understanding and acknowledging what was in front of us on January 6, I think we need to look at that critically,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), one of the six Republican senators who ultimately voted for the commission, said on Thursday. “Is that really what this is about, one election cycle after another?”