Members of Congress have made a habit of capitulating to partisanship in recent years. But it’s difficult to find a better example than this: failing to agree on how to investigate an attack on yourself.
The first issue is how much everyone involved seems to be talking past one another. As I wrote earlier this week, the GOP has struggled to square its opposition with its past statements about just how bad the Jan. 6 insurrection was and, in many cases, how culpable President Donald Trump was.
Initially, the argument was mostly that the commission needed to also look into unrelated violence by antifascist groups and at Black Lives Matter protests, even though those didn’t involve near the per capita level of violence or attacks on the seat of federal government. Then it was that the proposal was too partisan — even though it was negotiated by a high-ranking Republican, Rep. John Katko (R-N.Y.), who was tasked with doing so by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.).
Perhaps given how shaky those justifications were, the GOP has since homed in on another: that the commission is redundant. They’ve argued that criminal prosecutions and the regular committee processes are sufficient to deal with it, at least for the foreseeable future.
While potential supporters of the commission like Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) have talked about getting the proposal into a more amenable place for enough of their GOP colleagues, that new posture would seem to render such efforts effectively moot. It’s theoretically possible the proposal could get to a place in which 10 GOP senators could support it. But when even retiring Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), who was one of seven GOP senators to vote to convict Trump at his most recent impeachment trial, opposes it on redundancy grounds, that says a lot.
That leaves six GOP senators who voted to convict Trump who might support a commission, but it’s not at all clear where the rest of the votes would come from. Only 12 GOP senators total are even known to be in play, according to the latest whip count, and several of them seem to be unlikely crossovers.
The true reason for the GOP opposition, of course, has become increasingly clear: They don’t want to relive this because it’s bad for them politically. Both McCarthy and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) sharply criticized Trump for his actions vis-a-vis Jan. 6. But the broader party has since then signaled it will stand by the former president, and constantly rehashing Jan. 6 ahead of a potentially promising 2022 election would seem to work against their efforts to regain power in two very tightly split chambers. The Senate’s No. 2 Republican, John Thune (S.D.), essentially said as much publicly, and Politico reports McConnell made this very raw political case against the commission to GOP senators.
But also consider that for a moment. What’s the thing of which they say this commission would be redundant? A regular inquiry guided by congressional committees. Who is in charge of those committees? Democrats.
The power structure of the bipartisan proposal put forward by Katko is similar to the 9/11 Commission, giving Republican members significant power to control how it’s conducted, including when it comes to issuing subpoenas. Is it really preferable for Republicans to just let Democrats run the show?
A cynic would argue that it might be, in that they can use it to attack the processes and findings as being partisan — a “witch hunt,” if you will. That same cynic might suggest that nothing good will come of this when it comes to how Trump and members of his party fomented what ultimately transpired on Jan. 6, especially given how many of them played up false claims of irregularities and an illegitimate election. That cynic might also say that the appearance of the inquiry being bipartisan would force the party to engage in the kind of reckoning it has occasionally dabbled in but never truly embraced.
Lastly is the role of Democrats in all of this. The party is united behind both the proposal and the idea that this was an unconscionable attack on the American government — one that both undermined democracy and must be dealt with in the name of preserving our system of government. Yet thus far that hasn’t been enough to change the calculus for those who have resisted changing the filibuster rules (and the 60-vote threshold it involves).
Sens. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), the two biggest Democratic proponents of the filibuster, issued a statement Tuesday calling on Republicans to find a way to get to “yes” on the commission. They said the commission is “a critical step to ensuring our nation never has to endure an attack at the hands of our countrymen again.”
Some read this as a potential warming to the idea of nixing the filibuster — or at least holding it out there as a threat. I don’t really see that, and Manchin is sticking by the filibuster. (I’m also on record as seeing compelling reasons for Democrats to leave the filibuster in place.) But if you truly regard this as “critical” to preventing attacks on the U.S. government, how do you not take every step possible to making sure that’s the case, even if it means casting aside decades of Senate tradition?
What’s clear in just about all of this is that this was very likely something that would have passed rather easily shortly after Jan. 6. But Congress, over time, has apparently found a way to get to “no.” And it has somehow done so on something involving a historic attack not just on democracy, but one that endangered many of them and led to deaths in the place where they work.
No proposal is perfect. But if something like that can’t even achieve “good enough” status — and if Republicans would rather let Democrats run this than support a proposal negotiated by one of their own — that’s a pretty severe statement about the state of play in the nation’s capital.