Impasse on commission underscores Republican angst over Jan 6

·4-min read

By blocking creation of an independent, bipartisan January 6 commission, congressional Republicans have signaled they would rather approach next year's midterm elections unencumbered by potentially damning findings about the deadly US Capitol riot.

Nearly five months after Donald Trump supporters stormed the citadel of American democracy, and four months after he left office, the former president retains an iron grip on his party.

So much so that Republican lawmakers are acting in fealty to -- or as one Democratic senator said, in "fear" of -- the brash billionaire whose loyalists appear eager to downplay the mob violence that transpired as rioters sought to overturn results of a presidential election.

Senate Republicans on Friday filibustered legislation that would have greenlighted a 10-member panel devoted to uncovering the truth behind the insurrection and bringing closure to what President Joe Biden called "the worst attack on our democracy since the Civil War."

Earlier the measure passed the House of Representatives with support from 35 Republicans. But efforts to broker a compromise failed in the evenly divided Senate.

Even an 11th-hour personal plea by the mother of a US Capitol Police officer who died after battling with rioters on January 6 went unheeded.

Ultimately just six out of 50 Senate Republicans voted for the bill, and it failed to secure the 60 votes needed to advance in the chamber.

Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski, one of the six to break ranks, recognized that an independent probe might be painful for some colleagues ahead of the 2022 midterm polls but said it was still worthwhile.

"I don't want to know -- but I need to know. And I think it's important for the country that there be an independent evaluation," Murkowski said.

"Is that really what this is about, that everything is just one election cycle after another?"

But as frustration mounted among Democrats, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer took to the floor with a searing critique of Republicans' nothing-to-see-here messaging.

"The truth of the matter seems to be that Senate Republicans oppose the commission because they fear that it might upset Donald Trump and their party's midterm messaging," he told colleagues.

"Well too bad. This is too important. For the sake of Americans' faith in our democracy, there must be a full, thorough, and trusted account of what happened on January the 6th."

Tensions have been so pronounced following the unrest that no Republicans supported a $1.9 billion House package to improve security in and around the US Capitol.

It recently passed by a one-vote margin, but is almost certainly doomed in the Senate by the same filibuster that sank the commission.

"To my Republican friends, and I do have them: take back your party," an exasperated House Speaker Nancy Pelosi implored last week.

- 'No-brainer' -

Democrats accuse Republicans of denying crucial facts and downplaying the seriousness of the riot, in which a baying mob directing their ire at the then-vice president chanted "Hang Mike Pence!" and fought with police who were protecting members of Congress.

Earlier that day Trump gave a fiery speech in Washington where he pledged to "never concede" the November election and urged his supporters to "fight like hell."

Afterwards Congress's two top Republicans, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Senator Mitch McConnell, declared that Trump bore responsibility for the riot.

A handful of House Republicans joined Democrats in voting to impeach the president, and McCarthy for his part called for a fact-finding commission.

"It's a no-brainer," Republican former senator Scott Brown told WGBH television recently about forming a bipartisan, 9/11-style commission that would report its findings by the end of the year.

But that timing would bump up against the 2022 midterm cycle, and McConnell and McCarthy eventually came out against such a panel.

"We think the American people, going forward and in the fall of '22, ought to focus on what this administration is doing to the country," McConnell said Tuesday.

Several experts say Republicans simply weighed the risks of a commission, and decided it would be too politically damaging, despite polls showing most Americans back its creation.

The relentless broadcast of images of rioters clad in Trump gear that would no doubt accompany news of the commission findings would be "a no-win proposition for Republicans," Calvin Jillson, a professor of political science at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, told AFP.

"And so I think the Republican leaders look at that and say, 'We're going to take some heat if we decline to have an investigation'," Jillson said.

"'But we could take a much bigger hit in the midterm elections of 2022 if we allow this thing to be the center of attention'."

Capri Cafaro, a professor at American University's School of Public Affairs, agreed, saying an overly proactive approach towards examining the riot could alienate Trump's voter base.

Republicans like Senator Rick Scott, who chairs the GOP campaign arm devoted to taking back the Senate majority, argue that deep-dive investigations are already happening through multiple Justice Department probes and congressional investigations.

Voters anyway are focused on the economy, inflation and schools, he said.

"What people care about is what's important to their families," Scott told AFP. "They're not thinking about a commission."