Pelosi’s push for 9/11-style Capitol riot commission stalls in political quicksand
Surrounded by broken glass in a defaced Capitol on the night of Jan. 6, Speaker Nancy Pelosi conferred with a senior House Republican about a bipartisan commission that would investigate the attack on Congress. Ten weeks later, those talks have all but collapsed.
Pelosi is now eyeing a Plan B: tapping three House committees, run by Democrats, to do their own probe of how a violent, pro-Trump mob managed to overwhelm police and terrorize legislators.
What seemed like a no-brainer at the time — a 9/11-Commission-style review of the origins of the mob, the white nationalists who joined it and the security failures that allowed it to briefly occupy the Capitol — has instead become the latest theater for dysfunction on Capitol Hill as the two parties squabble over the panel’s scope and partisan balance. The commission’s prospects have also dimmed thanks to a relatively well-functioning Senate inquiry that’s already helped provide the sort of answers an independent entity might take months to produce.
“I like the idea of a 9/11 Commission, but we also want to have something intermediary here,” said Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), who chairs the Rules Committee, one of two Senate panels probing the events of Jan. 6. “As I look at our officers on the front lines, they can’t wait a year for some suggestions about what we can do better.”
Klobuchar’s inquiry, alongside the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, has exposed some of the federal government’s failures to respond promptly on Jan. 6 after only two hearings. The Senate investigating panels plan to draft and publicly release a bipartisan report outlining recommendations to ensure that the Capitol is secure and that government agencies coordinate better in the face of terror threats.
But the existing inquiry is likely to stop short of the comprehensive review of the causes and motivations behind the attack that the 1/6 Commission, as initially envisioned, would produce. Klobuchar said her overwhelming focus remains the three hours that passed between a request for National Guard troops to push back rioters and their deployment to the Capitol on Jan. 6.
That narrow scope means many of the existential questions about the Capitol assault — as well as the thorniest ones about the extremist groups involved in the riot and Donald Trump’s role in inciting it — are likely to remain unanswered thanks to the stalling of Pelosi’s commission proposal.
“I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive,” Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), the Homeland Security Committee chair, said of the Senate’s probe and a potential 1/6 Commission. “If folks want to have further investigations, this is in no way an attempt to circumvent anybody else who wants to look into it. It should all be complementary.”
When asked whether the Senate probe would touch on Trump, Klobuchar said: “Our focus has always been on what happened at the Capitol. It’s very clear who I think incited this insurrection. But right now our focus is on the constructive changes that can be made.”
Pelosi has not abandoned the effort for an outside commission yet. She insisted Wednesday that a bipartisan effort is still possible and has recently circulated her “discussion draft” proposal that she’s described as a baseline for negotiations with Republicans.
“We must investigate it and we must get the truth for the American people,” Pelosi said Wednesday morning on MSNBC.
Other top Democrats have echoed her calls. “The Jan. 6 violent attack on the Capitol wasn’t really a partisan issue,” Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), the fourth-ranking House Democrat, told reporters Wednesday. “An attack on our democracy impacts not just Democrats or Republicans or independents. It impacts all of us. I think the objective remains to try to do this in a bipartisan way.”
But the speaker has made clear that her patience is not unlimited. And an aide indicated that the California Democrat is prepared to task the House Administration, Homeland Security and Appropriations committees with taking on the Jan. 6 inquiry if there are no bipartisan breakthroughs soon. The Appropriations panel has already gotten a head start, holding hearings on the Capitol Police budget that featured questions about the force’s role in the response to the attack.
Pelosi views the root of the failure to coalesce behind a 1/6 Commission as clear: Republicans’ refusal to agree on the scope of the investigation. The GOP has resisted a square focus on the Capitol siege and instead has sought a broader review that ropes in other types of recent politically motivated violence, conflating antifa with the right-wing extremists who stormed the building.
“What are the other things that happened as well? With Antifa, and others, I think there should be a lot of investigations,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has declared that the only commission he would accept would look at all forms of political violence, not just the strain that fueled the Jan. 6 attack. And House Republicans have rejected the notion of predetermined findings that pin some blame for the riot on white supremacists.
Complaints by Republicans that Pelosi has proposed an imbalanced commission are a feint, the speaker has said, because its structure is still negotiable. Her initial draft of legislation creating the commission gave Democratic appointees an edge, breaking from the tradition of the evenly split 9/11 Commission.
That’s not the only counterargument Republicans make in stiff-arming Pelosi. They’re also disinterested in commission talks out of a belief that Democrats have exploited the post-Jan. 6 atmosphere to fuel claims about an “insider threat” from GOP lawmakers. Further, Republicans argue that Pelosi’s party has drained goodwill by entertaining a challenge to the seating of a GOP House member from Iowa.
“The scope of the commission can be debated by the commissioners,” Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Ill.) said in an interview. “The biggest problem is how to set it up. … Speaker Pelosi holds all the cards and the ability to move forward with this commission.”
Davis is one of about three-dozen House Republicans who sponsored legislation in the aftermath of the attack to establish a 1/6 Commission modeled on the 9/11 Commission. But his initial optimism for a deal, he said, has “already faded.”
Davis speculated that Pelosi’s approach to the commission talks is intentional, designed to create a wedge that keeps her caucus angry at Republicans in order to unify her narrow majority. It’s a position that Democrats reject out of hand as excuse-making by Republicans unwilling to focus a commission solely on the Jan. 6 attack.
Some Republicans are still willing to engage on the subject, as long as the investigative body more closely mirrors the structure of the 9/11 Commission.
“It was an attack on the Capitol, and if there is an investigation and the evidence comes out and they find things that one side was more responsible than the others, so be it,” Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) said. “But the investigation itself ought to be balanced. It ought to be fair.”
One potential X-factor in the debate is the emergence of Serena Liebengood, the wife of Capitol Police Officer Howard Liebengood, who took his own life on Jan. 9, after nearly round-the-clock shifts that began with the Jan. 6 riots. Officer Liebengood, who served on the force since 2005 and whose father was a longtime Senate official, was classified as an “off-duty” death.
But Serena Liebengood, in a letter circulated among lawmakers this week, is criticizing the Capitol Police for declining to label her husband’s death as “in the line of duty.” And she’s vowing to play an active role pressing lawmakers in the House and Senate to pursue a bipartisan commission to understand what happened on Jan. 6, as well as to explore structural reforms to the Capitol Police that include prioritizing mental health.
Notably, the members of the 9/11 Commission have long credited the advocacy of the families of 9/11 victims with keeping the pressure on Congress to ensure a bipartisan commission was established. That advocacy, until now, had largely been absent from the 1/6 Commission debate.
“The Liebengood family wants Howie’s death to not have been in vain,” the officer’s widow wrote in a letter to Rep. Jennifer Wexton that the Virginia Democrat shared with colleagues this week.
Melanie Zanona, Burgess Everett and Sarah Ferris contributed to this report.