On Friday, the Senate voted on a bipartisan commission to investigate the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol. It only got six Republican votes, four short of what it needed to overcome a legislative filibuster. This wasn’t inevitable—for a while it seemed like the commission had real momentum behind it. Thirty-five Republicans voted for it in the House; swing senators like Susan Collins and Mitt Romney signaled their support early on; police who responded on Jan. 6, and relatives of one Capitol Police officer who died, began knocking on Republican doors to ask for their votes. But as Slate senior politics writer Jim Newell says, none of this really mattered because of one person: Mitch McConnell. Newell says it’s worth looking back to consider how and why Republicans, especially McConnell, became divided on it—because it wasn’t always thus. On Wednesday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Newell about how the commission went from a Republican “compromise” to dead on arrival, and what that means for all the other legislation Congress is trying to pass. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Jim Newell: Making sure there weren’t 10 Republicans willing to vote for this took a lot of effort from Mitch McConnell, I think—he really hasn’t had to exert himself in this way for a while now. There is some reporting that McConnell had to call in a few personal favors with Republicans to get them to actually vote against the commission. So I think if McConnell hadn’t been trying to stop this, it very easily could have gotten 10 Republican senators. You could tell that some Republicans who did end up voting for the commission were pissed off that McConnell was so aggressive in trying to stop this whole thing. Killing this commission kind of puts the lie to this whole idea that Republicans back the blue and they’re willing to do anything for police officers.
If we want to look at the beginning of this commission storyline, this originally came forward as a GOP counteroffer to impeaching Donald Trump, when Democrats thought that Trump merited impeachment. A lot of House Republicans, including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, said we don’t need to impeach Donald Trump, let’s move on, he’s only got 10 days left, but we should have an independent commission to study what happened on Jan. 6, modeled after the 9/11 Commission. You had a bunch of House Republicans in mid-January release a bill that would have set up such a commission, and that bill was very close to what this compromise legislation eventually became.
Later on, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi released her own idea for a commission. The makeup would have been seven Democratic appointees, four Republican appointees, with the chair having unilateral power to do basically everything. Republicans dismiss that, then they start negotiating. Their written demands were that the commission be split between five Republican appointees and five Democratic appointees, that the chair and the vice chair—one appointed by Democrats, one by Republicans—would have joint subpoena power: The chair would need to get signoff from the vice chair before issuing one. Also, there wouldn’t be any predetermined findings in the legislation about what happened that day. In other words, they let the investigation lead them to wherever it goes, rather than starting from a certain set of facts.
Mary Harris: Were the Democrats are OK with all that?
I think it took some negotiating, but in the end, that’s the deal cut by Bennie Thompson and John Katko, the chair and ranking member of the Homeland Security Committee. It was exactly along those lines. Even though Republican leadership had tasked Katko with doing these negotiations, did they think he would cut a deal eventually? I don’t know, because as soon as he did, House Republican leaders were saying, “I’m opposed to this.”
That’s where the real excuses came from. Kevin McCarthy and a lot of Republicans started saying, Why are we just focusing on Jan. 6? Why don’t we talk about antifa? So once it became clear that all the actual policy or textual problems Republicans said they had could be solved, McConnell came out and said last Tuesday that they don’t want to talk about this. I think the bet he was making was, I’ll take bad headlines now, rather than risk having bad headlines over the next year and a half resulting from whatever this commission is working on or leaking, so we won’t have to deal with this investigation in the background for the next 18 months, as we’re trying to win the midterms.
One of his points is that there are plenty of other investigations into Jan. 6 going on at the Department of Justice and in Congress, so why would this be different?
You have some committees looking into it, but that’s a pretty politicized process, and we’ll see if any reports come out of that. You have the Justice Department doing its investigations and prosecutions of people who broke into the Capitol, but the independent commission is maybe the only chance where you would get a full, comprehensive story outside of the realm of politics—because there are no sitting lawmakers allowed on this commission. To have that kind of complete independent record for history is important. I’m not quite sure you’re going to get that definitive account on a bipartisan basis with subpoena power behind it. That window may have been missed.
What really stands out to me is what Mitch McConnell is saying now versus how he sounded on Jan. 6, because on that day he sounded uncharacteristically emotional, talking about how this was the most important vote he was ever going to take: to allow the votes for Joe Biden to be certified.
He gave that speech when they were trying to certify the Electoral College tally after the riot. He ultimately didn’t vote for impeachment, but he gave a really scathing speech about Trump afterward, which did a lot of harm to him in Republican politics. He becomes a question in primary politics, and Republicans know a lot of his candidates—the people McConnell wants to win were going to be asked about their ties to “Never Trump,” McConnell, and all of that. Had McConnell kept going down that road, maybe it could have endangered his position in the Senate leadership, just because you can’t be a liability for your members like that forever. The first time there was a vote on whether to keep Liz Cheney as House Republican conference chair, he backed her pretty publicly. But then you started to see his shift the time they successfully got rid of Cheney. He didn’t say anything about it, he kept his distance from it, and now he’s trying to bury this commission.
I think McConnell had hoped after Jan. 6 that this could be the moment where the GOP breaks from Trump. He was clearly on the side of wanting to move on, not mentioning this guy’s name anymore, casting that off to remain a viable party. But now it seems like he realizes that anytime Democrats want to prosecute Trump, that’s going to hurt the overall Republican position in midterms. So it’s almost like he’s come around to recognizing that they’re not going to be able to purge Trump.
I wonder if you think there’s any case to be made that there are advantages for Democrats with the Jan. 6 commission being blown up?
I’m sure this will come up in some midterm campaigns. I don’t know how effective it will be, but it will come up. It fits the overall story that Republicans are trying to bury an effort to overturn the election, which is something that still has a lot of people seething with rage.
Plus, the issue of whether to get rid of the filibuster or not is coming to a head. Chuck Schumer, the majority leader, says he’s going to put a bunch of issues on the floor in June that Republicans probably are going to filibuster—
Stuff like voting rights.
Yes, stuff like voting rights or Paycheck Fairness. Dems are going to make Republicans look pretty bad for blocking all that, and I think Schumer’s trying to build the case about unyielding Republican obstructionism, which would hopefully make it easier to get rid of filibuster. The final commission plan was something Republicans didn’t actually have a real policy complaint about. So for them to just filibuster it, that’s a very bad look, and that’s obviously going to piss off Joe Manchin because he’s kind of staked his reputation on this: that the Senate can work work in a bipartisan way if you let it, and the filibuster promotes compromise. Here, it showed the opposite argument. The filibuster doesn’t encourage compromise. It just stops things dead in the water.
Can you explain where the idea of a Jan. 6 commission goes from here? What are the alternatives under consideration at this point?
Schumer has said he might bring it up for a vote again, but I see no reason to believe that would go differently. The next option a lot of people are talking about is whether Pelosi wants to vote to set up a select commission to basically do the same work.
What is a select committee?
A select committee is a temporary committee set up for a specific purpose in the House. Republicans did one during the Obama years to investigate the Benghazi attacks. And, you know, we had Democrats who treated it as a joke. But that investigation led to the discovery of Hillary Clinton’s private email server, which then became this whole big headache for her throughout 2016 and eventually led to emails of hers being found on Anthony Weiner’s child porn computer, and then that led to the Comey letter, which affected the election result.
So you think the select committee can really make a mess.
It can make a mess. That’s also something where if Pelosi did set it up, it would be much more stacked toward Democrats. The Democratic chair would get all the subpoena power. We’ll see if Pelosi and Democrats decide to go that route. I think it’s likely.
Let’s say the commission had been approved. Do you think it would have made a real difference in terms of our shared understanding of exactly what took place on Jan. 6?
I do. There was a two-and-a-half-month effort to overturn the election by the president. And it culminated in Jan. 6. I’m not sure that’s been fully grappled with. Republicans would like it to disappear from the public consciousness. I think having a definitive report for history to show what happened here is very important. So it’s disappointing when McConnell says, well, Democrats want to focus on things in the past. Sure they do. But this was certainly the worst thing I’ve ever seen about the functioning of the country in my lifetime.
I would watch inaugurations and you’d have Brian Williams or whoever announcing them. They’d be sort of cheesy, like, “There’s the peaceful transfer of power. We must never take it for granted.” But yeah, we really can’t take it for granted. I mean, the president tried to stop it. That’s a new precedent now. Someone might try to stop it again.
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