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Bill to create Capitol riot commission stalls amid partisan discord

Rioters storm Capitol
Rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

Legislation creating an independent, bipartisan panel to investigate the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol is stalled, for now, with Democrats and Republicans split over the scope and structure of a review that would revisit the deadly attack and assess former President Trump’s role.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) has pushed for the commission, which would be modeled after the panel that investigated the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington. But unlike those assaults, which engendered some unity in Congress almost two decades ago, the insurrection by Trump’s supporters has pulled Democrats and Republicans further apart, even on the basic question of what should be investigated.

It’s evidence not just of the partisanship in Congress but of a legislative branch reeling from the fallout of the Trump era, with lawmakers unable to find common ground, or a common set of facts, even after a mob smashed into the Capitol and threatened their lives.

Democrats say Republicans helped provoke the attack by aiding and abetting Trump’s falsehoods about the election — many signed onto a failed lawsuit challenging President Biden’s victory — and question whether some GOP lawmakers had ties to the rioters. Some Republicans, including Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, have downplayed the severity of the attack.

“The problem is the scope,” Pelosi said Wednesday. “Are we going to seek the truth, or are we going to say we’re not stipulating that anything really happened that day?”

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Republicans immediately objected last month to Pelosi’s proposal for the commission, which would create a panel of four Republicans and seven Democrats to “conduct an investigation of the relevant facts and circumstances relating to the domestic terrorist attack on the Capitol.” She has signaled that she is open to negotiations on the commission’s makeup but has drawn a harder line on the scope.

The acting head of the Capitol Police acknowledges the department had intelligence warning of a “significant likelihood for violence” on Jan. 6 but officers were not prepared for the massive armed insurrection that would follow.

The legislation does not mention Trump or his calls for his supporters who broke into the Capitol to “fight like hell” to overturn his election defeat. But Republicans swiftly decried the broad latitude that the commission would have to investigate the causes of the insurrection. They also objected to a series of findings in the bill that quoted FBI Director Christopher Wray saying that racially motivated violent extremism, and especially white supremacy, is one of the biggest threats to domestic security.

The Republicans said the investigation should focus not only on what led to the insurrection but also on violence in the summer of 2020 during protests over police brutality — a touchstone among GOP voters and an idea that Democrats say is a distraction from the real causes of the violent attack.

“We can pass a bill, but that’s not the point,” Pelosi said in an interview on MSNBC. “You want it to be bipartisan. And it cannot be bipartisan if the scope of it is to not draw any conclusion about what happened that day as the premise for how we would go forward and investigate it.”

Failure to set up a commission would leave it to committees in the House and Senate to explore what went wrong Jan. 6, which is what some lawmakers prefer. Those investigations are well underway on a bipartisan basis and have already identified problems with Capitol Police. But those probes are unlikely to attain the stature and credibility of an outside investigation.

If the U.S. established a Jan. 6 Commission, it could investigate the Capitol attack, affix blame and study how security failed so spectacularly.

It is unclear whether negotiations on the commission are active. A House GOP leadership aide said Wednesday that House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy is continuing to request that Republicans have equal representation on the panel and greater subpoena power, identical to the Sept. 11 commission. The aide, who was granted anonymity to discuss the private negotiations, did not comment on whether the scope of the probe was still a sticking point.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said on the Senate floor last month that the language is “artificial cherry-picking” and that the commission should either look narrowly at the specific security failures in the Capitol or “potentially do something broader to analyze the full scope of political violence here in our country.”

McConnell said an inquiry “with a hard-wired partisan slant would never be legitimate in the eyes of the American people.”

If Pelosi did move forward on a partisan basis, the legislation would likely meet opposition in the Senate, where 60 votes — including 10 Republicans — would be needed for passage.

Senate Republicans cast doubt that there was enough support for the commission.

“My instinct is that is not happening, that the idea that [the] speaker floated was so much in contrast to the way we handled this on 9/11,” said Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt, the top Republican on the Senate Rules Committee, which is conducting its own probe. “I think the better way to do it right now would be for the committees to continue to work on it and try to come to quicker conclusions.”

Blunt said a commission could take too long to make findings that could improve security around the Capitol.

South Dakota Sen. John Thune, the No. 2 Republican, said he doesn’t think the commission will happen if the legislation isn’t changed.

“I hope that it can get restarted, but I think they’re going to have to look at how they can restructure it,” Thune said.


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