Republican Rep. Kevin McCarthy has yet to win the gavel of House speaker, but he's speaking enough to step into some political minefields.
Tuesday evening, McCarthy, the no. 2 Republican in the House and the favorite to become the top leader in Congress this month, gave an interview to Fox News in which he seemed to concede a key Democratic talking point: that the GOP investigation into the 2012 attacks in Benghazi, Libya, is all about politics.
"Everybody thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right?" said McCarthy, of Bakersfield. "But we put together a Benghazi special committee. A select committee. What are her numbers today? Her numbers are dropping. Why? Because she's untrustable. But no one would have known that any of that had happened had we not fought to make that happen."
Democrats quickly feasted on McCarthy's comments. As the controversy built during the day, Republicans joined in the criticism.
Clinton, in an interview with MSNBC on Wednesday, called the remarks "deeply distressing," adding that she knew Ambassador Chris Stevens, one of the four Americans who died in the Benghazi attack.
"When I hear a statement like that, which demonstrates unequivocally that this was always meant to be a partisan political exercise, I feel like it does a grave disservice and dishonors not just the memory of the four that we lost, but of everybody who has served our country," she said.
Republicans have long insisted that the committee was established to try to get the truth behind the deaths of Stevens, the ambassador to Libya, and the other Americans, and not muddy up Clinton, the secretary of State at the time and the Democrats' likely 2016 presidential nominee.
Any damage inflicted on Clinton was incidental, they insisted.
McCarthy's remark gave Democrats all the ammunition they needed to insist it has been a political witch hunt all along.
Rep. Adam B. Schiff, the Burbank Democrat who is one of the party's top voices on intelligence matters, called McCarthy's statement a blunt admission that the committee's "true purpose had little to do with finding out anything new of that tragic night that claimed four American lives, and everything to do with attacking a likely Democratic nominee for president."
"McCarthy laid bare the abusive purpose of this taxpayer-funded committee," he said.
The pro-Clinton super PAC Correct the Record piled on, calling McCarthy's admission "disgraceful."
Several of McCarthy's fellow Republicans added to the criticism.
McCarthy "needs to reread the job description of speaker of the House if he thinks it's to bring hearings that help us denigrate Democrats that are running for president," said Rep. Thomas Massie, a conservative from Kentucky. "We need to focus on what we're supposed to do in this chamber."
As controversy swirled Wednesday, McCarthy's office put out a statement intended to clarify his remarks. Spokesman Matt Sparks blamed the Obama administration's "stark refusal and indifference to oversight and accountability" and pledged "to vigorously conduct" oversight.
"The Select Committee on Benghazi has always been focused on getting the facts about the attacks on our diplomatic facilities in Libya that led to the death of four Americans," he said. "This was the right thing to do and the Committee has worked judiciously and honestly. As a result of that work, there are now numerous investigations being conducted – including the Federal Bureau of Investigation. These inquiries have nothing to do with politics and everything to do with the consequences of what the former Secretary has done and her confusing, conflicting, and demonstrably false responses."
McCarthy, who in his fifth term would be the least experienced member of Congress in more than a century to lead the House, surely knows how treacherous the task will be. He has held the No. 2 job for more than a year. But there's nothing like seeing the bright lights firsthand.
He's trying to show insurgent conservatives that he's willing to fight hard for their principles. At the same time, he is facing scrutiny from a broader American audience as he tries to show that his party can govern, despite the intraparty feuds that led to congressional paralysis and the resignation of House Speaker John A. Boehner, effective Oct. 30.
McCarthy has been using the Benghazi committee as an example that he can lead "a conservative Congress, that puts a strategy to fight and win." In that vein, he has also highlighted a GOP plan to enlist a committee to scrutinize Planned Parenthood, rather than risk a government shutdown by trying to strip the organization of its funding as some conservatives have demanded.
But as Boehner can attest, it's a tough balancing act. In the same interview, McCarthy was asked to grade Boehner's performance. It was the ultimate test of the stress he is facing: McCarthy served alongside Boehner as his top deputy, but the conservatives who pushed Boehner to resign have lambasted him as a squish.
McCarthy's grade for Boehner? B-minus.
No wonder Boehner is heading for the exit.
Staff writer Lisa Mascaro contributed to this report.
For more on Congress, follow @NoahBierman.
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