True, Democrats could amend the bill to try to secure more Republican support. But few expect many Republicans to budge. That means the commission idea is probably dead.
Here are four takeaways from the failure to establish the commission.
1. Not every crisis compels Congress to act
Lawmakers create independent commissions to advance their electoral interests. As Jordan Tama argued here at TMC earlier this year, commissions enable lawmakers and party leaders to respond to political pressure for action after a crisis. Commissions can generate bipartisan narratives of what went wrong — allowing partisans to either deflect blame for the events or pin it on others.
But for Congress to act after a crisis, both parties have to know a response would serve their electoral interests. In this case, most Republican lawmakers have decided that avoiding an investigation — even whitewashing what happened at the Capitol that day — better serves their electoral interests.
True, immediately after the attacks, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) floated the idea of an independent commission — albeit at the same time as he opposed Democrats’ plans to impeach President Donald Trump for a second time. Rank and file House and Senate Republicans also pitched proposals to create a commission.
But GOP leaders soon decided that voting for a commission would incite Trump’s harsh criticism, put his support for Republicans in the 2022 midterm elections at risk, and hurt their midterm messaging, when they intend to focus on Biden and Democrats’ policy records. McCarthy faced the prospects that a commission could compel him to reveal his conversations that day with Trump. And House Republicans only recently booted Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) from leadership for insufficient fealty to Trump.
Empowering a commission to focus on Trump — rather than Democrats — in the run-up to the midterms held little appeal for GOP leaders eager to stay on Trump’s good side and prevent a bipartisan reckoning on what caused the insurrection.
2. Committee bipartisanship has limits
The House-passed bill resulted from a bipartisan deal hammered out by the chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) and the panel’s ranking Republican, Rep. John Katko (N.Y.). House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and GOP leader McCarthy had deputized committee leaders to reach a deal. Notably, the pair’s bipartisan agreement little resembled the initial version advanced by the speaker. Pelosi had proposed a significantly more partisan panel, especially compared with bodies created to investigate the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks under President George W. Bush or the Iran-contra affair under President Ronald Reagan.
But even after the duo reached an agreement, GOP leaders forswore the deal — leading Katko to sarcastically thank McCarthy for “not throwing me under the bus.” Granted, nearly three dozen Republicans — mostly from swing congressional districts — still voted for the bill. That tally would surely have been higher had McCarthy not opposed it: Nearly every California Republican joined their home-state colleague McCarthy to vote against the bill, even though most hail from purple districts.
Still, the episode makes plain the challenges lawmakers face when they want to reach across the aisle. Party leaders — seeking to keep or regain majority control of their chamber — dominate party messaging and often undermine bipartisan cooperation. True, this strategy could prove risky for Republicans should Democrats go ahead with a special House panel to investigate the attacks without the guardrails of a bipartisan commission. Republicans seem willing to take the risk.
3. It’s not the first filibuster of the year
Most see the commission bill’s demise as the Senate’s first filibuster of the year. But that’s only the case if you identify filibusters by failed cloture votes — episodes in which Democrats fail to secure 60 votes for a measure or motion. But the need for 60 votes to cut off debate permeates Senate business even when leaders do not file cloture votes.
For example, Republicans in effect filibustered the resolution for organizing the Senate until they secured concessions — thereby delaying Democrats from taking the helm of chamber committees for weeks. The parties also agreed to require 60 votes to adopt amendments — rather than the usual simple majority — when the Senate considered measures to stem hate crimes against Asian Americans and to bolster U.S. competition with China.
Remember, too, that Democrats used special filibuster-proof budget rules to pass the president’s mammoth pandemic relief bill earlier this year. Why? Because they fully expected Republicans would otherwise filibuster the plan.
4. Filibuster reform remains out of Democrats’ reach, for now
Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) issued a dire statement Thursday morning, all but begging his GOP colleagues not to filibuster the commission bill: “There is no excuse for any Republican to vote against this commission since Democrats have agreed to everything they asked for.”
His statement came on the heels of his earlier letter with Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), imploring their GOP colleagues to work with them to improve the commission bill.
Why did these two centrist Democratic senators seem so desperate to avoid a filibuster? The pair face intense pressure from fellow Democratic senators and party activists to do away with the “legislative filibuster.” Republican rejection of the commission — especially after the duo’s pleadings — surely increases pressure on Manchin and Sinema to support reform.