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Top House Republican Opposes Bipartisan Commission To Investigate Capitol Riot

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., opposes a deal setting up a 9/11-style commission to investigate the Jan. 6 attacks on the U.S. Capitol.
Evan Vucci
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., opposes a deal setting up a 9/11-style commission to investigate the Jan. 6 attacks on the U.S. Capitol.

Updated May 18, 2021 at 9:23 PM ET

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy came out Tuesday against a bipartisan proposalto establish a 9/11-style commission to investigate the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. The announcement comes a day before the House of Representatives is slated to vote on the legislation.

McCarthy tasked the top-ranking Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee, Rep. John Katko of New York, to broker a deal on the commission, and the GOP leader's opposition undercuts his own member's agreement with Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., and gives cover to other House Republicans to vote against it.

McCarthy's position is unlikely to prevent the plan's approval in the House, but its future in the Senate, which is evenly split between Republicans and Democrats, is less certain. Democrats would need at least 10 GOP votes in the Senate for the commission to come into being. At issue is the panel's task: investigating the Jan. 6 attack. Many Republican lawmakers are loath to anger former President Donald Trump, whose supporters carried out the attack and who himself continues to claim baselessly that the election was stolen.

Trump on Tuesday night blasted the proposed commission, calling it a "Democrat trap."

To explain his opposition, McCarthy, a California Republican, pointed to other bipartisan efforts in the Senate to probe the riot, a security review underway by a top House official, and the Justice Department's arrests of hundreds who breached the Capitol that day. He said the fact that the commission also isn't designed to study other instances of political violence was a problem for him.

"Given the political misdirections that have marred this process, given the now duplicative and potentially counterproductive nature of this effort, and given the Speaker's shortsighted scope that does not examine interrelated forms of political violence in America, I cannot support this legislation," McCarthy said in a written statement Tuesday.

But Katko, the ranking Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee, said he's moving forward with his support for the bipartisan deal.

"I am confident Chairman Thompson and I negotiated a solid, fair agreement that is a dramatic improvement over previous proposals that sought to politicize a security review of the Capitol," Katko said in a statement Tuesday.

"I recognize there are differing views on this issue, which is an inherent part of the legislative process and not something I take personally," Katko added. "However, as the Republican Leader of the Homeland Security Committee, I feel a deep obligation to get the answers U.S. Capitol Police and Americans deserve and ensure an attack on the heart of our democracy never happens again."

The comments come a day after Katko was appointed to fill the seat left vacant by Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York on the party's steering committee with McCarthy's support. Stefanik was elevated to become the No. 3 House Republican after last week's ouster of Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, who continued to speak out against Trump and his role in the Jan. 6 attack.

A Republican aide confirmed to NPR that the party is not instructing members to vote against the panel Wednesday. Instead, House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., later issued a recommendation for members to vote against the plan, which the aide said is largely meant to let members know how leadership will vote. It could apply lighter pressure than a usual whip check on House GOP members to say "no" to the plan come Wednesday.

In his statement Tuesday, McCarthy slammed talks on the commission as well as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for her approach during negotiations.

"For months, the Speaker of the House refused to negotiate in good faith on basic parameters that would govern a commission to examine the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol," McCarthy said.

The bipartisan proposal calls for a 10-member panel, evenly split between the two parties: Five of them, including the chair, would be appointed by the House speaker and the Senate majority leader; the other five, including the vice chair, would be appointed by the minority leaders of the House and Senate. The commission is tasked with studying the "facts and circumstances of the January 6th attack on the Capitol as well as the influencing factors that may have provoked the attack on our democracy."

The commission would also have the power to issue subpoenas to carry out its investigation, but these would require "agreement between the Chair and the Vice Chair or a vote by a majority of Commission members."

The panel is directed to produce a final report and recommendations by Dec. 31. That timeline is much more expedited than the 9/11 commission, which took more than a year for Congress to create and which issued a report almost three years after the terror attacks.

The four-month effort to get agreement on the structure of a commission was stalled as GOP lawmakers pushed back on Pelosi's initial plan that included more Democrats than Republicans. They also wanted the panel to look beyond the Jan. 6 attack and focus on the unrest last summer across U.S. cities.

After her ouster, Cheney told ABC News she wouldn't be surprised if McCarthy were subpoenaed by a commission.

McCarthy spoke with Trump on Jan. 6 and has talked publicly about his appeals to the president that day to address those rioting at the Capitol and urge them to leave. During the second impeachment trial of Trump, Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Wash., revealed that McCarthy told her the president's response to him was, " 'Well, Kevin, I guess these people are more upset about the election than you are.' "

"I would hope he doesn't require a subpoena, but I wouldn't be surprised if he were subpoenaed," Cheney said about McCarthy.

In recent weeks some Republican lawmakers have downplayed the threatto the Capitol on Jan. 6 despite the fact that many of them were in the building when violent protesters clashed with police. And while many on the right have tried to emphasize the threat of antifa,the nation's top law enforcement officials and the rioters themselves confirm that right-wing extremists hold responsibility for the violence.

McCarthy, who days after the attack said Trump deserved blame for the riots, has softened his stance. Last week after he met with President Biden, he maintained that no one is disputing the 2020 election results — hours after backing an effort to remove Cheney for calling out fellow Republicans who continue to raise questions about the certification in some states.

Pelosi, asked about McCarthy's opposition, told reporters on Capitol Hill, "I'm very pleased that we have a bipartisan bill to come to the floor and it's disappointing, but not surprising, that the cowardice on the part of some on the Republican side not to want to find the truth."

Later Tuesday, Pelosi issued a statement taking aim at McCarthy's complaints about the negotiations.

"Democrats made repeated efforts to seek a bipartisan compromise. But Leader McCarthy won't take yes for an answer," Pelosi said. "In his February 22 letter, he made three requests to be addressed in Democrats' discussion draft. Every single one was granted by Democrats, yet he still says no."

However, McCarthy called Pelosi's earlier moves "political games." He argued ongoing investigations by several congressional committees cover all the facets of the Capitol siege. He also pointed to more than 400 arrests by the Justice Department in the fallout from the attack, with more expected to follow.

And he reiterated his concerns that the scope should go beyond the riot to include the racial justice protests last year and an April car attack at the Capitol that left an officer dead. He has said the focus should also include a 2017 shooting attackon GOP lawmakers at a baseball field in Alexandria, Va.

On Tuesday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said his party discussed the proposal over lunch but added no final consensus had been reached. He declined to say if he was open to a tighter scope focused just on the siege.

"I am not saying we have decided this should not go forward. But if it is going to go forward, it needs to be clearly balanced and not tilted one way or another so we have an objective evaluation," McConnell told reporters. "I think it is safe for you to report that we are undecided about the way forward at this point. We want to read the fine print. And if the majority leader puts it on the floor, we'll react accordingly."

Some Senate Republicans have already expressed early support, including Senate Minority Whip John Thune of South Dakota and Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Mike Rounds of South Dakota and Mitt Romney of Utah.

Romney especially took issue with the stance by McCarthy and others to broaden the commission's focus.

"Those things are of a different nature. This was an attack on the constitutional transfer of power in a peaceful manner and an attack on the symbol of democracy around the world," Romney told reporters. "If they want to look at other things, perhaps they can do that in another way. The key thing that needs to be associated with this effort would be the attack on this building."

In a statement Tuesday night, Trump said that "Republicans in the House and Senate should not approve the Democrat trap of the January 6 Commission. It is just more partisan unfairness and unless the murders, riots, and fire bombings in Portland, Minneapolis, Seattle, Chicago, and New York are also going to be studied, this discussion should be ended immediately."

On Tuesday, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., told reporters he is still holding out hope that a significant number of Republicans will support the proposal on Wednesday. He noted the commission vote marks another test for Republicans and their ties to Trump.

"Many, many Republicans have talked to me and believe it should be focused on Jan. 6," Hoyer said. "I think this is an effort by the minority leader to distract and disassemble, and it's unfortunate."

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Deirdre Walsh is the congress editor for NPR's Washington Desk.
Claudia Grisales is a congressional reporter assigned to NPR's Washington Desk.