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Pelosi's plan for commission to probe Capitol riot faces GOP resistance

Posted February 17, 2021 3:36 p.m. EST

— House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's plan to create a 9/11-style commission to investigate the January 6 US Capitol riot is facing skepticism and opposition from congressional Republicans warning that the outside probe should not become a vehicle to attack former President Donald Trump.

The initial resistance from Republicans to Pelosi's plan underscores the tricky balancing act the speaker and House Democrats face as they craft legislation for a commission to probe what remains a politically charged event last month that led to Trump's second impeachment. While leading House Republicans haven't expressed outright opposition as they await more details, they are warning the commission shouldn't relitigate the impeachment. And in the Senate, there are questions from Republicans about whether Congress is better positioned to investigate the January 6 riot than a new, outside entity.

Pelosi said on Monday she planned to create the commission to investigate "the facts and causes" related to the attack on the Capitol, and House Democrats are moving quickly with legislation. House Administration Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren of California has drafted a commission bill that is now with the speaker's office for final decisions and negotiations with the Senate, according to a Democratic aide close to the process.

Diving further into questions about Trump's role is politically problematic for many Republicans -- because some GOP lawmakers also had a hand in pushing Trump's false election claims. What's more, questions about Trump's response to the riot will inevitably involve top Republicans like House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who had a shouting match with Trump in a January 6 phone call that became a focal point of the impeachment trial.

Democrats say that the commission must examine all facets of the riot, which include the role that Trump played stirring up false claims of election fraud that alleged rioters charged by federal prosecutors have cited in explaining why they attacked the Capitol on January 6.

"I fully support Speaker Pelosi's 9/11-style commission. One thing they will find is that Donald Trump incited the insurrection," California Rep. Ted Lieu, one of the House impeachment managers, told CNN on Monday. "Leading from that are a whole host of questions we don't know yet, such as how do we have such a massive breakdown in security?"

Republicans, meanwhile, have raised questions about Pelosi's role in the security failures of January 6 and say that should also be part of any investigation into the attack on the Capitol.

A senior Democratic aide dismissed the GOP criticisms of Pelosi as a "clearly partisan" attack on her. The commission that's being drafted to investigate the January 6 attack is based on the non-partisan 9/11 Commission, the aide said, and House Democrats' outreach to get Republicans on board is beginning.

Before announcing she would move to create the commission, Pelosi had a lengthy conversation with the chair of the 9/11 Commission, former New Jersey GOP Gov. Thomas Kean told CNN.

GOP questions over commission

McCarthy and other top Republicans have introduced legislation to create a fact-finding commission, too. But they have not yet weighed in on Pelosi's plan as they wait to see how she intends to structure the commission.

While the House could pass a bill to create the commission with only Democratic votes, the Senate will need some Republican buy-in to overcome a filibuster.

"Republicans put forward a proposal for a fact-finding commission over one month ago. It is our responsibility to understand the security and intelligence breakdowns that led to the riot on January 6 so that we can better protect this institution and the men and women working inside it," McCarthy said a statement to CNN.

Rep. Rodney Davis, the top Republican on the House Administration Committee, told CNN he has not heard from the speaker or Democratic leadership about the structure of the commission. He argued that the commission needed to have a broad scope to examine security decisions before and on January 6 -- including, he argued, Pelosi's role in deploying the National Guard to the Capitol.

"If Speaker Pelosi's vision of a 9/11 Commission is to only stay focused on Republicans, then she is really not interested in a truly 9/11-type commission," Davis said.

Another complicating factor is how the commission would interact with the numerous congressional probes that have already launched into the circumstances surrounding the attack on the Capitol. Multiple House committees are investigating. The Senate Homeland Security and Rules Committees have scheduled a joint hearing next week to assess the security failures.

A Senate GOP aide questioned why Congress would cede its investigations to an outside commission.

"There is no need for Congress to abdicate its responsibility to conduct its own investigations and oversight since there are congressional committees with clear jurisdiction as well as subject matter and investigative expertise," the aide said. "Commissions can be slower and costlier than congressional investigations and can also suffer from questions regarding access to records that are more easily surmounted by a congressional committee with subpoena power."

Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill said that the House committees are expected to continue their work if a commission is formed, noting the 9/11 Commission had inside and outside pieces.

'You have to have the power'

Kean told CNN he had a "long conversation with the speaker" on Friday about her plan to establish a commission, saying they discussed key issues she should consider while drafting legislation. Congress needs to provide the commission with three things to make it successful, Kean said: time, money and subpoena power.

"Without those three things, it won't work," Kean said.

Vice chair of the 9/11 Commission, former Democratic Rep. Lee Hamilton, outlined on CNN's "Newsroom" on Tuesday why subpoena power is a "critically important" component for the commission.

"If you're really going to be serious, you're going to have to get information from people who don't want to give it to you. And you have to have the power to force them to give you the information," Hamilton said.

Kean highlighted that the language from Congress outlining the focus and scope of the commission needs to be specific, saying that it was a guiding document he referenced often as his own commission was underway. For Kean, the commission Congress designs to investigate the Capitol insurrection should be governed by a multi-pronged set of questions.

"In my mind the major thing is one, we got to find out how it happened, why it happened, and answer questions like was it pre-planned?" Kean told CNN.

There are some key differences between Pelosi's plan and the 9/11 Commission created following the September 11, 2001 terrorist, attacks. One of the key distinctions is the fact that the 9/11 Commission wasn't created until more than a year later, which gave the congressional committees time to conduct their own probes.

Former Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, who played a key role with the-late Sen. John McCain to pass the bill creating the 9/11 Commission, told CNN there was resistance both from the George W. Bush administration and some lawmakers to an outside commission.

Lieberman said that getting bipartisan buy-in would be key to giving a new commission credibility, though he noted the challenge in how to address Trump's role.

"You can't ignore the role of the President in what happened on January 6, because obviously it was a causal factor, as Sen. (Mitch) McConnell and a lot of other people concluded," Lieberman said, referring to the Senate minority leader, who has blamed Trump but nevertheless voted to acquit him last weekend.

But Lieberman also added a word of caution: "It's not going to get done and be credible if it's just seen as another chance to indict President Trump."

GOP questions Pelosi appointment

Republicans have been frustrated by some of Pelosi's actions since the attack, such as her decision to install metal detectors outside the House floor. They've also voiced their displeasure about the way Pelosi has handled the security-related review, which she unilaterally tapped retired Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré to lead.

Republicans on the House Administration Committee have not seen the interim report from Honoré that Pelosi cited in her letter calling for an 9/11-style commission, according to a GOP spokesperson for the committee.

GOP lawmakers have also complained about not being involved in the process of choosing Honoré, though they have said they appreciate Honoré reaching out to them individually, and have accused Pelosi of tightly controlling the flow of information related to the review despite the fact that the speaker oversees many of the security-related issues that are being examined.

Rep. James Comer of Kentucky, the top Republican on the Oversight Committee, and three other House Republicans wrote a letter to Pelosi earlier this week warning her to avoid making investigations political and raising questions about her own responsibility for security failures on January 6. While Pelosi's team has dismissed the letter as partisan, it underscores the potentially delicate balance she will have to strike in forming the commission.

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