Wednesday evening, the House passed a bill that would create an independent commission to investigate the Jan. 6 Capitol attack. Thirty-five Republicans joined all Democrats in a 252 to 175 vote.
The bipartisan result came in spite of House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s decision Tuesday to come out against the bill. Democrats had granted most of the concessions McCarthy had previously asked for, but among McCarthy’s excuses for rejecting the deal was that the Jan. 6 commission would not also be charged with investigating unrelated urban riots last summer.
Still, the chances of Congress sending Joe Biden a bill establishing a bipartisan Jan. 6 commission were very much in doubt. Even while McCarthy was failing to keep his own conference in line, he spent Tuesday and Wednesday making inroads in the Senate—particularly with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. On Tuesday, McConnell’s position on the bill was that he would keep his options open. He said that the Republican conference was “undecided about the way forward at this point,” and that they wanted to “read the fine print” on the House bill before taking a position. When the House passed the bill and sent it over, they would take a look.
Overnight, though, McConnell changed his stance. On Wednesday morning, about 12 hours after Donald Trump said in a statement that the “discussion” over “the Democrat trap of the January 6 commission” should “be ended immediately”—“Hopefully, Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy are listening!”—McConnell announced on the Senate floor that he had “made the decision to oppose the House Democrats’ slanted and unbalanced proposal for another commission to study the events of January the 6th.”
Somehow, in that brief span of time, the commission had transformed from a course of action worthy of McConnell’s consideration into a self-evidently pointless project. “It’s not at all clear what new facts or additional investigation yet another commission could lay on top of the existing efforts by law enforcement and Congress,” McConnell said. “What is clear is that House Democrats have handled this proposal in partisan bad faith from the beginning.” He described Democrats as “continuing to insist on various other features under the hood that are designed to centralize control over the commission’s process and its conclusions in Democrats’ hands.”
But clearly it was conceivable; you could see the Senate Republican conference pick up their leaders’ objections to the “fine print” in real time. South Dakota Sen. Mike Rounds, who said on Tuesday that he was interested in the commission and that “we clearly had an insurrection on that particular day, and I don’t want it to be swept under any rug,” was singing a new tune on Wednesday after he and other GOP senators met with McCarthy. The Wednesday version of Rounds echoed a concern that McConnell had noted on Tuesday, that staff “would only be appointed by the Democrat chairman and that Republicans would not have a say in that,” and he worried that the Dec. 31 deadline for the commission to finish its business would be unmeetable, given how long it would take to set up shop and obtain security clearances for everyone. Maine Sen. Susan Collins similarly said, “I don’t think it’s right to have the chairman unilaterally appoint all the staff” and wanted it made extra clear that the commission could not be extended beyond Dec. 31.
The complaint about staffing makes no sense at all. The bill text on staff hiring is identical to that of the bipartisan 9/11 commission, which no one had a problem with, as well as that of a separate Jan. 6 commission proposal introduced by House Republicans in January. There is a clearly defined mechanism for Republican appointees on the commission to prevent the Democrat-appointed chair from filling out the staffing entirely with members of Antifa.
“The bill text, which is identical to language in the 9/11 Commission bill and H.R. 275, allows for the hiring of Commission staff by the Chair, in consultation with the Vice Chair, and in accordance with the rules agreed upon by the Commission,” a Republican staffer to the House Homeland Security Committee explained to me. “This avoids any unilateral action by the Chair by requiring consultation with the Vice Chair and adherence to the internal Commission rules agreed to by the Commissioners, now equally split among Ds and Rs.”
The Dec. 31 deadline is a more plausible complaint. Were the bill passed by both chambers and signed into law today, that would leave the commission just north of seven months to get appointed, hire staff, get security clearances, begin investigating, issue subpoenas, deal with stonewalled subpoenas, and then write a report. As Lawfare wrote, “the current deadline is a recipe for shallowness. It will discourage consensus-building and give some commissioners an incentive to try to run out the clock.”
The solution to that, then, would be to extend the deadline much further—perhaps past the election—or to eliminate the deadline. Republican objections, instead, are coming from both ends. They note that the Dec. 31 deadline doesn’t give the commission time to properly do its job, but they also want further assurances that the deadline would be held to—that is, they say the commission is being given too little time, and they want to forbid it from getting more. The investigation timetable isn’t the issue, the political timetable is: They don’t want Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer mounting a public offensive at them, at the end of the year, for an extension and casting them as traitors if they refuse to do so.
Given that these complaints are technical ones, there should technically be a possibility that the Senate could amend the House bill on a bipartisan basis to fix some of these issues Republicans say they have. Collins indicated that she was partial to that path.
But betting on that outcome over a filibuster would be misreading what’s going on here.
Republican leaders believe—and they’re not wrong—that any day spent discussing Jan. 6 is a day they’re not helping themselves take back congressional majorities. They don’t want a new, evenly split commission passed with bipartisan buy-in—a fair commission that they can’t attack as a witch hunt would in many ways be worse!—in the news all the time, keeping the spotlight on a day that laid bare the rot in their party.
The House minority whip, John Thune, was pretty clear about this Wednesday.
“I want our midterm message to be about the kinds of issues that the American people are dealing with—it’s jobs and wages and the economy, national security, safe streets, strong borders and those types of issues, and not relitigating the 2020 election,” Thune told reporters. “So clearly, I think, a lot of our members—and I think this is true, a lot of House Republicans—want to be moving forward and not looking backward and, you know, anything that gets us rehashing the 2020 election, I think, is a day lost on being able to draw contrast between us and the Democrats’ very radical left-wing agenda.”
Texas Sen. John Cornyn said it would be Democrats’ “dream” for this to spill out until the middle of next year, and added, “I generally don’t try to help Democrats.”
Republicans aren’t moving to block the commission because the appointed chairman may have too much leeway in hiring. They’re blocking it because the Jan. 6 rioters stormed the Capitol in support of Donald Trump, and Donald Trump is still in control of the Republican Party. The lie that brought on the attack—that Biden stole the election from Trump—has become doctrine for their party base. Any honest discussion of Jan. 6 would air these facts, so they want it out of the conversation.
McConnell may fancy himself more sophisticated than McCarthy. He doesn’t say Trump’s name, doesn’t speak with him, doesn’t visit him at Mar-a-Lago to apologize, and tries not to seem visibly in thrall to whatever demands Trump makes of him on a minute-to-minute basis. But the House and Senate Republican leaders are making the same calls in the end. McCarthy voted against impeaching Trump over the insurrection, and McConnell voted against convicting him. McCarthy dumped Liz Cheney from his leadership for continually criticizing Trump and McConnell didn’t defend her. McCarthy came up with excuses to oppose a Jan. 6 commission he had originally been open to, and McConnell came up with his own. The mob is still calling the shots.