Democrats Think the Benghazi Committee Is a Sideshow. Will They Join It Anyway?

House Democrats are trying to decide if they’ll participate in the soon-to-be-formed Benghazi Committee. They’re running out of time.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi with House Demoratic Whip Rep. Steny Hoyer before an event hosted in front of the U.S. Capitol May 6, 2014 in Washington, DC.
National Journal
Elahe Izad
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Elahe Izad
May 8, 2014, 1 a.m.

Say you think something is a total cir­cus; should you skip it al­to­geth­er, or hop in­to one of the rings so you can yell about how ludicrous you think it all is?

That’s the es­sence of the tac­tic­al de­bate ra­ging among Demo­crats on wheth­er they should par­ti­cip­ate in the soon-to-be-formed Benghazi Se­lect Com­mit­tee. Demo­crats won’t be vot­ing to form it; they think it’s un­ne­ces­sary and rep­lic­ates pre­vi­ous com­mit­tee work, and that it’s polit­ic­ally mo­tiv­ated.

The crux of the ar­gu­ment against par­ti­cip­at­ing: It would give cred­ib­il­ity to what Demo­crats per­ceive to be a par­tis­an sideshow.

The com­mit­tee as con­struc­ted has slots for sev­en Re­pub­lic­ans and five Demo­crats. The ar­gu­ments for Demo­crats to boy­cott are com­ing from strong corners. Demo­crat­ic Con­gres­sion­al Cam­paign Com­mit­tee Chair­man Steve Is­rael urged against par­ti­cip­at­ing in the pan­el Wed­nes­day dur­ing a closed-door meet­ing, ac­cord­ing to a House Demo­crat. And the third-rank­ing mem­ber of the House Demo­crat­ic lead­er­ship, Rep. James Cly­burn, told re­port­ers he would be “dead set” against par­ti­cip­at­ing if the pan­el were un­even. “I’m not bring­ing a noose to my hanging,” he ad­ded. A ma­jor­ity of those speak­ing be­fore the full Demo­crat­ic Caucus on Wed­nes­day made the case against par­ti­cip­at­ing, ac­cord­ing to a lead­er­ship aide.

It wouldn’t be the first time Demo­crats have agreed to not play ball on a se­lect com­mit­tee. In 2005, party lead­ers de­cided against ap­point­ing any Demo­crats to a se­lect com­mit­tee in­vest­ig­at­ing the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion’s re­sponse to Hur­ricane Kat­rina.

A num­ber of Demo­crats have de­cided that even agree­ing to ap­pear on the pan­el doesn’t guar­an­tee that their voices will be heard, cit­ing the mic-shut­down in­cid­ent in the House Over­sight Com­mit­tee earli­er this year.

“We’ve seen gross ab­use of the priv­ileges of the minor­ity and the rights of wit­nesses, cer­tainly in the com­mit­tee I serve on — Over­sight and Gov­ern­ment Re­form — so, ab­sent rules, you’ve got chaos,” said Demo­crat­ic Rep. Gerry Con­nolly.

But there are Demo­crats who say it’s a mis­take to sit this one out. The most vo­cal mem­ber of this con­tin­gent is Rep. Henry Wax­man, a former chair­man of the Over­sight Com­mit­tee, him­self a Pelosi ally, who made the case to his col­leagues Wed­nes­day as to why Demo­crats shouldn’t sit out the Benghazi Com­mit­tee.

“I don’t think we should vote for it. I don’t want to give it any cred­ib­il­ity, but I think Demo­crats ought to be there to point out the witch hunt that’s all polit­ic­al, that Re­pub­lic­ans are un­der­tak­ing with this com­mit­tee,” Wax­man said.

But wouldn’t par­ti­cip­at­ing le­git­im­ize the en­deavor? Wax­man says no. “If any­thing, some Demo­crats ought to be there to con­tin­ue to point that out. We need to be there to be sure that when Re­pub­lic­ans ab­use their power, point it out then and there that they’re ab­us­ing their power.”

The pro­spect of an all-Re­pub­lic­an pan­el sub­poena­ing someone such as Hil­lary Clin­ton to testi­fy, without a Demo­crat in the room, does give pause.

House Minor­ity Lead­er Nancy Pelosi and Minor­ity Whip Steny Hoy­er sent a let­ter to House Speak­er John Boehner on Tues­day night, re­it­er­at­ing a re­quest for equal rep­res­ent­a­tion on the pan­el, in­clud­ing the is­su­ance of sub­poen­as and how doc­u­ments are ob­tained and pos­sibly re­leased, among oth­er points. Rep. Joe Crow­ley, a mem­ber of Demo­crat­ic lead­er­ship, said, “There are still dis­cus­sions go­ing on between both caucuses” on how the com­mit­tee will func­tion.

Many de­tails are not spelled out to the lik­ing of Demo­crats, who tried in a Wed­nes­day House Rules Com­mit­tee meet­ing to push an amend­ment that would even out the pan­el’s makeup so that there would be equal num­bers of Re­pub­lic­ans and Demo­crats. The ef­fort failed.

The com­mit­tee will dis­solve 30 days after it is­sues a re­port, and its life could run to the end of the 113th Con­gress. But lead­ers can bring it back for reau­thor­iz­a­tion in the next Con­gress, which would eas­ily pass a Re­pub­lic­an-con­trolled House.

The House Re­pub­lic­an lead­er­ship has in­sisted that the pan­el is needed. A re­cently re­leased email, ob­tained by the con­ser­vat­ive group Ju­di­cial Watch, has House Re­pub­lic­ans con­cerned that the ad­min­is­tra­tion has with­held in­form­a­tion from Con­gress. The email was sent by White House Deputy Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Ad­viser Ben Rhodes to then-United Na­tions Am­bas­sad­or Susan Rice, ahead of her sched­uled ap­pear­ances on sev­er­al Sunday talk shows to dis­cuss the at­tacks in Libya. The email sug­gests that the White House had a role in shap­ing how Rice dis­cussed the at­tacks, which left four Amer­ic­ans dead.

Boehner has prom­ised that the com­mit­tee will op­er­ate in a highly dig­ni­fied man­ner. “This is all about get­ting to the truth. It’s not go­ing to be a sideshow. It’s not go­ing to be a cir­cus. This is a ser­i­ous in­vest­ig­a­tion,” Boehner said Wed­nes­day. “I think it’s about bring­ing all these activ­it­ies that have been go­ing to­geth­er in­to one place. And it’ll be paid for out of ex­ist­ing House ac­counts.”

It’s in Re­pub­lic­ans’ best in­terests that Demo­crats par­ti­cip­ate. If Demo­crats don’t par­ti­cip­ate, it will make it harder for Re­pub­lic­ans to de­flect cri­ti­cisms that the pan­el is a polit­ic­al ploy. And Re­pub­lic­ans will have to ex­er­cise some dis­cip­line in how they man­age the polit­ics around the pan­el.

The Na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an Con­gres­sion­al Com­mit­tee shot off an email Wed­nes­day morn­ing fun­drais­ing off the com­mit­tee’s cre­ation. White House deputy press sec­ret­ary Josh Earn­est said that “is a pretty good in­dic­a­tion of the polit­ic­al mo­tiv­a­tion that’s at work here.”

Around the Cap­it­ol, Re­pub­lic­ans have dis­avowed such a cam­paign strategy. “I can­not and will not raise money on Benghazi,” Rep. Trey Gowdy, the Re­pub­lic­an tapped by Boehner to chair the com­mit­tee, told CNN’s Jake Tap­per. “I also ad­vise my col­leagues to fol­low suit.”

The House will vote Thursday on the cre­ation of the com­mit­tee, and Demo­crats are whip­ping their mem­bers to vote no. After that, they are ex­pec­ted to an­nounce a de­cision on wheth­er they’ll par­ti­cip­ate, ac­cord­ing to a lead­er­ship aide. And Re­pub­lic­ans will likely name the mem­bers from their con­fer­ence who will serve on the com­mit­tee by the end of the week.

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