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Dems Weigh Boycott of Benghazi Select Committee

Dems Weigh Boycott of Benghazi Select Committee

By Caitlin Huey-Burns - May 8, 2014

Facing the formation of a select committee to investigate the 2012 Benghazi attacks, congressional Democrats are weighing whether to boycott the panel, with some of them wary of ceding control of the issue to Republicans and others concerned about participating in what they consider a political stunt.

The House of Representatives is prepared to approve on Thursday a dozen-member committee consisting of seven Republicans and five Democrats. GOP leaders have dismissed a request from Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Whip Steny Hoyer for equal party representation, a decision committee Chairman Trey Gowdy said is intended to reflect Republican control of the chamber.

Speaker John Boehner -- who announced formation of the committee last week following newly released emails detailing how the administration crafted its explanation of the deadly attacks on the U.S. consulate in Libya -- insisted Wednesday that the probe “is not going to be a sideshow, is not going to be a circus.” Gowdy, a former prosecutor, told CNN he would conduct the investigation as he would a trial. “This isn’t going to be a kangaroo court,” he said.  

But the panel’s formation is already a source of drama on Capitol Hill. Democrats argue that the inquiry will serve no purpose other than to motivate the GOP base in this midterm election year and drag Hillary Clinton through the mud ahead of a possible 2016 presidential run. Others have drawn comparisons to the McCarthy hearings.

Republicans, on the other hand, have accused the White House of initially mischaracterizing the attack in order to protect the president’s re-election chances. With control of the Senate at stake this year, GOP lawmakers are building a larger campaign narrative of an untrustworthy administration. Gowdy said he would like former Secretary of State Clinton to come back to Capitol Hill to testify.

The National Republican Congressional Committee, the House GOP’s campaign arm, used the issue to solicit donations and gather email addresses from visitors to its website, asking for support of Gowdy and the investigation. In television interviews, however, the South Carolina congressman pledged not to fundraise off the issue and urged his colleagues to follow suit.

The GOP campaign committee will be monitoring Thursday’s vote, expected to pass along party lines, and pledged to “hold Democrats in Congress accountable who vote against creating the select committee on Benghazi and who continue to try to sweep this controversy under the rug,” said spokeswoman Andrea Bozek.

Debbie Wasserman Schultz, chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, called for a boycott of the panel if its makeup is unbalanced.

“It is nothing more than a political ploy, because continuing to focus obsessively on repealing the Affordable Care Act has lost its luster even among [the GOP’s] own party members,” she told reporters Wednesday at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast.

Others Democrats argued that they should participate in the investigation to help neutralize the panel. “I think we’ve got to be there to make sure people understand what’s really going on and not allow witnesses to be badgered,” said California Rep. Henry Waxman, the ranking member of the Energy and Commerce Committee.

And one Democrat sees a silver lining in the committee’s formation. “This is the full neutering -- a full neutering! -- of Chairman Issa and his 16 months of work,” House Democratic Caucus Vice Chairman Joseph Crowley said, referencing House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa’s lengthy investigation of the Benghazi attacks.

According to Roll Call, Crowley also argued that “nothing new” would come from the new probe, saying that the select committee has the same capacities as Oversight. 

As of Wednesday night, Pelosi had not indicated whether she would lead a boycott and refuse to appoint any of her members to the panel.

“I can understand members who say, ‘Look, I don’t want it to be seen that I wasn’t willing to stand up and answer,’ ” said Connecticut Rep. John Larson, a Democrat. But, he said, “not since I heard the line uttered ‘We have the names of [57] card-bearing members of the Communist Party’ have you seen something that’s so blatant as this.”

California Rep. Adam Schiff, a member of the Intelligence Committee, admitted Democratic leadership has a “tough call” to make. “Certainly there’s an argument to be made for having a seat at the table,” he said. “But if it’s not a meaningful seat … I come down on the side of not wanting to lend a partisan stunt more credibility than it deserves. … It’s a partisan exercise to go after the administration and the one they feel will [be] the next administration.”

During a public appearance in New York on Wednesday, Hillary Clinton said, “I do not believe there is any reason for it to continue in this way, but they get to call the shots in the Congress.”

Select committees operate on different rules than other established panels, and they aren’t typically made up of an equal number of members from each party. When Nancy Pelosi was speaker in 2006, the panel she convened to investigate climate change had nine Democrats and six Republicans. The 1973 committee on Watergate had four Democrats and three Republicans. 

Democrats point to Boehner’s previous arguments against the additional probe, citing the work already underway by several committees. The speaker acknowledged his previous comments but said the White House has crossed the line in stonewalling attempts to gather information.

Last week, the watchdog group Judicial Watch published an email it retrieved through a Freedom of Information Act request. In it, Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes wrote that the goal of then-U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice’s appearances on the Sunday talk shows soon after the attacks should be to “[u]nderscore that these protests are rooted in an Internet video, and not a broader failure of policy.”

The White House and Democrats have insisted that the email conveyed nothing new, and that previous investigations have turned up no smoking gun that would indicate an administration cover-up. “We have cooperated with a number of inquiries related to Benghazi. Some of those have been rather partisan in nature, but have still enjoyed remarkable cooperation from the administration,” said Deputy White House Press Secretary Josh Ernest. “Five different congressional reports have been issued on this topic. Seven different congressional investigations have been conducted. Eight different subpoenas have been issued. Thirteen hearings have been held. Twenty-five transcribed interviews have been conducted. Fifty different briefings for staff and members; 25,000 pages of documents have been produced by the administration.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said no select committee would be created in the upper chamber.

Alexis Simendinger and Adam O'Neal contributed to this report.

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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