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Opinion Joe Manchin’s foolish hopes

Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.V.) listens to Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), on the monitor behind him, at a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing on domestic violent extremism in Washington on May 12. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post/POOL)
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With news that Senate Republicans will likely filibuster the creation of an independent commission to investigate the Jan. 6 insurrection — a commission negotiated by Republican Rep. John Katko (N.Y.) — many wondered whether Sens. Joe Manchin III (D-W.V.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) would finally change their views on filibuster reform. It’s time to find out.

Last week, Manchin told Politico, “I’m still praying we’ve still got 10 good solid patriots within [the GOP] conference.” As others noted, including my colleague Greg Sargent, the unwelcome answer to Manchin’s prayer is Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) view: Republicans must treat any true accounting of the insurrection as an obstacle to winning back Congress in 2022. But if Manchin and others don’t want to hear that from McConnell, they can listen to two Republican senators who appeared on the Sunday talk shows this weekend — including one whom Manchin would surely need for his 10 votes.

On “Fox News Sunday,” Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) was full of flimsy excuses. “Commissions often don’t work at all,” he said. “And when they do work, like the Simpson-Bowles Commission produced a good result, nothing happened as a — as part of that result.” By that standard, we might as well not have laws, because some don’t work. He also argued that “it’s too early to create a commission” because the widely lauded 9/11 Commission didn’t begin its work until late 2002. That’s true, but why couldn’t this new commission start its work earlier?

By the end of the interview, even as he was insisting another commission wasn’t needed, Blunt was admitting that current investigations weren’t looking at everything. When host Chris Wallace asked whether the Senate Rules and Homeland Security committees were looking at “what about what was going on inside the Trump White House,” Blunt replied, “I think you’ve got to decide, what’s the priority here? Is the priority to secure the Capitol … decide what we want to do in the future, or is the priority to take what will be a couple of years, in my view, to decide what happened inside the White House?” Surely the answer is both? Then again, Blunt is reliably conservative. Perhaps he’s not the best test of Manchin’s 10 “good” Republicans. But what abut Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine)?

Collins’s answer on ABC’s “This Week” got off to an encouraging start for Manchin and company. “I strongly support the creation of an independent commission,” she said. But then came the conditions: “One has to do with staffing, and I think that both sides should either jointly appoint the staff or there should be equal numbers of staff appointed by the chairman and the vice chairman,” she told host George Stephanopoulos. “The second issue is, I see no reason why the report cannot be completed by the end of this year.” Both of Collins’s conditions have also been suggested by Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) — another senator who would be on any 10-vote list Manchin might draw up.

The staffing objection is silly: As Philip D. Zelikow, the 9/11 Commission’s executive director, told The Post, the staffing language in the bill is essentially identical to the language establishing the 9/11 Commission. The only difference is that President George W. Bush selected the 9/11 Commission’s chair, while House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) would select the Jan. 6 commission’s chair. Yet Collins, who was a senator when the 9/11 Commission was established, did not have a problem with that commission. What could possibly have changed?

More damning was Collins’s insistence, echoing McConnell, that the commission needs to keep its work out of an election year. At least Blunt’s main objection has historical precedent, and leaves open the possibility of a commission down the line if congressional and Justice Department investigations don’t succeed.

There is simply no reason for Republicans to fear a Jan. 6 commission unless they expect it to condemn them. This isn’t some “you have nothing to fear if you are innocent” hypothetical; we have ample evidence that long investigations have little partisan effect or even backfire. The 9/11 Commission issued its report in July 2004; though the book was a bestseller, the finding had little effect on that fall’s elections. House Republicans’ dozens of Benghazi hearings only made them look foolish. The impeachment inquiry against President Bill Clinton and the associated Starr Report culminated in Democrats gaining House seats in the 1998 midterms.

Inquiries maintain influence and credibility in the public’s eyes only when they produce damning, incontrovertible findings — think Watergate. Senate Republicans know this, so the only explanation for their opposition to the commission is: 1) They know a full accounting of that terrible day will shame the GOP; and 2) They’d rather once again put their party over the country.

Sens. Manchin and Sinema, this isn’t McConnell telling you there aren’t 10 reasonable Republicans. This is Collins (and Romney) all but screaming it. Ideally, the two Democrats would accept where this road is obviously heading and back filibuster reform now, before the unnecessary theater of trying to sway the unswayable. But at the very least, they should get ready to support changes as soon as the negotiations break down — which they will.


An earlier version of this column said the staffing language in the bill is essentially identical to the language establishing the Jan. 6 commission. It should have referred to the 9/11 Commission. This version has been corrected.

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