By a vote of 54-35, the Senate on Friday blocked a bipartisan proposal to create an independent inquiry into what led a violent mob of Trump supporters to storm the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, temporarily halting the certification of the 2020 presidential election.
Passage of the measure required 60 votes, but just six Republicans joined Democrats to vote in favor of the measure, which was passed in the House last week.
"Donald Trump's big lie has now fully enveloped the Republican Party," Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said in a floor speech immediately following the vote. "Shame on the Republican Party for trying to sweep the horrors of that day under the rug because they're afraid of Donald Trump."
After months of negotiations, Reps. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., and John Katko, R-N.Y., introduced the bipartisan bill earlier this month to create an independent panel to investigate the violent attack on the Capitol and the inadequate law enforcement response.
Modeled after the 9/11 Commission, which studied the circumstances surrounding the 2001 terrorist attacks on the U.S., the proposed Jan. 6 commission was to be composed of 10 nongovernment appointees, five of whom would be selected by the leaders of each party. The committee would have been given bipartisan subpoena power.
Last week, the bill passed the Democratic-led House of Representatives 252-175, with 35 Republicans voting in favor of the creation of the commission, despite last-minute opposition by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy.
The legislation faced an uphill battle in the Senate, where Democrats have the slimmest possible majority. Ahead of Friday's vote, just three GOP senators had said publicly that they planned to support the bill: Mitt Romney of Utah, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine. In addition to those three, Republican Sens. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, Ben Sasse of Nebraska and Rob Portman of Ohio also ended up breaking with party leadership and casting their votes in support of the commission.
In a statement explaining his vote, Cassidy cited concerns over the alternative to creating an independent commission. "Without this commission, there will still be an investigation," his statement read. "But it will be a House select-committee set up by speaker Pelosi — the nature of which will be entirely dictated by Democrats and would stretch on for years."
Lacking enough Republican support in the Senate to pass the bill, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi could still appoint a select committee to handle the probe, and there is speculation she could pick someone from outside Congress to chair it. (Pelosi has said she has a "backup plan" but has declined to elaborate about what exactly it is.)
"If they don't want to do this," Pelosi said of Senate Republicans during a press conference last week, "we will find the truth."
Top Republicans have offered different reasons for opposing an independent inquiry into the Capitol riot, including concerns about the scope of the commission, which some argued should also examine incidents of left-wing violence. GOP senators also pointed to the fact that the riot is already the subject of ongoing investigations by law enforcement and congressional committees. The potential political implications of such a high-profile probe ahead of the 2022 midterm elections emerged as another point of concern. Last week, Senate Republican Whip John Thune of South Dakota told CNN that some members of his party are worried that the commission's findings "could be weaponized politically and drug into next year."
"I want our midterm message to be on the kinds of things that the American people are dealing with: That's jobs and wages and the economy and national security, safe streets and strong borders — not relitigating the 2020 elections," Thune said.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell questioned the true intentions of the bipartisan proposal for a commission, arguing this week that the bill "is a purely political exercise that adds nothing to the sum total of information."
"I do not believe the additional, extraneous 'commission' that Democratic leaders want would uncover crucial new facts or promote healing," he said. "Frankly, I do not believe it is even designed to."
The partisan divide over the creation of the commission seems to reflect equally polarized public perceptions of the events of that day, when a mob of supporters of then-President Donald Trump forcefully entered the U.S. Capitol complex. According to a new Yahoo News/YouGov poll, 84 percent of Democrats say the Trump supporters who gathered in Washington to protest the results of the 2020 election are responsible for the attack, while 73 percent of Republicans blame it on "left-wing protesters trying to make Trump look bad," even though both the FBI and Kevin McCarthy have rejected this false claim.
On Thursday, Gladys Sicknick, mother of the late Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick, met with several Republican senators to encourage them to support a commission.
"I suggest that all Congressmen and senators who are against this bill visit my son's grave in Arlington National Cemetery," she said in a statement before arriving on Capitol Hill.
Brian Sicknick collapsed after a confrontation with rioters who sprayed him with a chemical on Jan. 6. He died the next day. (A medical examiner said he suffered a stroke and died from natural causes.)
Among those who met with Sicknick’s mother was Portman, who serves as the ranking member on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. He referred to his meeting with her in a statement explaining his vote in favor of the commission Friday.
“The January 6 attack on the Capitol was an attack on democracy itself. To keep it from happening again, a fair and objective investigation into what led to the attack, the lack of preparedness at the Capitol, and the slow response on that day are needed,” read Portman’s statement. “As I told the mother of Capitol Police Officer Sicknick in my meeting with her earlier today, I believe this only works if people believe the commission is fair and non-partisan.”
The Jan. 6 commission has also been publicly endorsed by the family of U.S. Capitol Police Officer Howie Liebengood, who died by suicide days after the insurrection. Shortly before the House voted last week, an anonymous letter circulated among congressional offices in which unnamed "Proud Members of the United States Capitol Police" expressed "profound disappointment" in Republican leadership for opposing an independent investigation.
"It is inconceivable that some of the Members we protect, would downplay the events of January 6th,” read the letter, which the Capitol Police later said was not an official statement from the department, despite being printed on its letterhead. According to a spokesperson for Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., whose office shared the letter with several chiefs of staff on Capitol Hill, the officer who provided the letter to the congressman's office said it represented the sentiments of 40 to 50 officers.
More than 140 officers from both the Capitol Police and the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department are estimated to have been injured while fighting to protect members of Congress and their staffs at the Capitol complex on Jan. 6.
“Jan. 6 was one of the worst days for our law enforcement community since 9/11," said former Democratic Rep. Tim Roemer, who helped craft legislation to create the 9/11 Commission and later served as one of its members. "If you are for the law enforcement community, you are for a Jan. 6 commission."
Roemer, who has been an outspoken proponent of a 9/11-style inquiry into the attack on the Capitol, spoke to reporters ahead of the Senate vote Thursday, along with former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel.
Hagel, also a former Republican senator from Nebraska, said he thinks creating an independent commission to investigate the attack on the Capitol “is as important as anything we’ve done in the last 20 years in this country.”
“Those who try to frame it as a Republican issue or Democrat issue miss the point, and they do a great disservice to our country when they frame it that way,” said Hagel, who warned that failing to take action in response to the events of Jan. 6 would be “a terrible black mark on the Congress of the United States.”
“As a former member of the Senate, I wouldn’t want to have to live with that,” he said.
On Thursday afternoon, a group of former Homeland Security secretaries — a role created in the aftermath of 9/11 — issued a statement urging senators to "put politics aside" and pass the measure.
“We must understand how the violent insurrection at the Capitol came together to ensure the peaceful transfer of power in our country is never so threatened again,” read the statement, which was provided to Yahoo News. It was issued by Michael Chertoff, Tom Ridge, Janet Napolitano and Jeh Johnson, who led the Department of Homeland Security under both Republican and Democratic administrations.
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