Nine Democrats who chair House committees sent letters to more than a dozen federal and local agencies on Thursday, kicking off a major investigation into what happened before, during and after the insurrection at the Capitol. House Democrats say they are still pursuing the creation of an independent commission, too — but privately Democratic lawmakers and aides tell CNN the move forward on the congressional probe is the clearest sign yet that an agreement on a commission may not be possible.
“I think it’s close to dead,” one Democratic member said.
Pelosi announced last month that she wanted to spearhead an independent panel modeled after the 9/11 Commission to get to the bottom of what happened on January 6, but the effort has been bogged down in partisan feuding over the makeup of the commission and what exactly it would investigate. The two sides blame each other for the standoff, and while talks aren’t dead yet, they have yet to move past the initial dispute over the scope of what the commission would tackle — most notably the role played by former President Donald Trump, whose supporters attacked the Capitol.
Pelosi herself expressed frustration with the lack of progress and accused Republicans of being unwilling to bend in particular on the issue of the scope of the investigation.
“I’m optimistic,” the California Democrat said before correcting herself. “I’m persistent, in terms of, we have get to the truth now.”
But both Republicans and Democrats involved in the negotiations say the talks on the issue have ground to a halt with little communication between the two sides. While Pelosi has not agreed to 50-50 partisan split on the commission, she argues that the real problem is a GOP unwillingness to focus the probe specifically on what led to insurrection. Republican leaders have argued that political violence in general should be a topic of the investigation.
“We have to find the truth. And we’re not walking away from that,” Pelosi told reporters Thursday. “Now, we’d love it to be as bipartisan as possible. But we have other, shall we say, paths, should there not come — we can’t come to something that would be similar to the 9/11 Commission.”
House Democrats always planned to use their committee structure to investigate the insurrection; it was Pelosi who proposed the idea of the independent commission as an additional step to provide a definitive accounting of the riot. Republican leaders like House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky expressed an openness to the idea initially, but balked when Pelosi floated a draft proposal that included Democrats appointing seven members and Republicans only four. The stalemate became even more pronounced when both GOP leaders suggested that political groups like Antifa and the violence surrounding last year’s Black Lives Matter protests should be part of the probe.
Republicans say they still want the commission and claim it’s Pelosi who needs to compromise. At his news conference last week, McCarthy said the commission must have equal membership and not begin with any established findings. Republicans, who have attacked Pelosi’s appointment of retired Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré to review Capitol security in the wake of the January 6 attack, note that it was the speaker who insisted on a bipartisan split on a commission to investigate the 2005 Hurricane Katrina disaster.
“If you start with the premise that you only want it one-sided, you understand what the outcome is going to be,” McCarthy said. His office said Friday that the negotiations have made no progress.
“Leader McCarthy is still requesting a bipartisan commission where Republicans and Democrats have equal representation and subpoena power, the same as it was for the 9/11 Commission,” said a House GOP leadership aide. “So far the speaker continues to insist on carrying out a partisan process.”
While Democrats could muscle through a commission plan with just Democratic votes in the House, they need Republican buy-in in the Senate, where 60 votes would be required to approve legislation for the outside panel. Pelosi said McConnell had told her he was serious about a commission but that he then went to the Senate floor and “dumped all over” her proposal.
Pelosi said Thursday that she was willing to have her committee chairs reach out to rank-and-file Republicans to see if they would be willing to cut a deal. But even that, she conceded, has gone nowhere. “Some of them have been receptive,” Pelosi said. “But then they’ll say, ‘Well, the leadership doesn’t want us to do anything. We won’t do anything.’ ”
‘Walk and chew gum’
Democrats say they are moving forward with their committee investigations while still laying the groundwork for an independent commission to be created later. In the Senate, bipartisan leaders of the Homeland Security and Rules committees are conducting a joint investigation too, with plans to issue a report on their findings later in the year.
“Even though Democrats are in agreement that a bipartisan 9/11-style commission is necessary, we can’t wait to get started and it’s clear Republicans want to drag this out,” said a senior Democratic aide. “By modeling our work on what’s happened after other national tragedies — from Katrina to 9/11, when the Congress began investigations with broad information requests — we can both do the work now and ensure we’re collecting the necessary information to turn over when a commission starts.”
Another Democratic aide told CNN that the broad request from committee chairs relating to the insurrection should not be seen as an effort to replace the independent commission. Even if the commission does go forward, the aide argued that committees can still conduct their own investigations: “We can all walk and chew gum.”
But with negotiations between Democrats and Republicans stalled, largely over what the commission should be investigating, the aide admitted there is a time limit for how long Democrats are willing to wait before moving forward on their own. The aide predicted that the committees could move forward unilaterally in “a matter of weeks” if there’s no progress.
“I think a commission is still our number one priority,” the aide said. “If there’s no, you know, agreement to be had with Republicans on the commission, then at that point we have a responsibility to do something unilaterally.”
The document requests issued by the Democratic committee chairs on Thursday went to a broad stretch of agencies connected to the response to the insurrection, including the White House, the FBI, the Justice Department, the Capitol Police, the National Guard and Washington’s Metropolitan Police Department. The requests for documents are an opening salvo in an investigation that could be ramped up further even if an agreement is reached for an outside commission.
The chairs noted that some of the information they are requesting is related to the sprawling FBI investigation into the attack, which has led to hundreds of arrests related to the breach of the Capitol and attacks on police officers. “We are happy to work with you to ensure that the document requests in this letter do not interfere with ongoing investigations and prosecutions,” the chairs wrote.
If an independent commission is created, the Democratic committees could face similar issues with overlapping requests. But there’s precedent for a commission to come in after Congress and examine the same subject matter: That’s what happened with the 9/11 Commission, which wasn’t created until more than a year after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks — and after a joint congressional probe.
Democrats are also preparing to release a security supplemental funding bill based on Honoré’s task force recommendations earlier this month, which included updates to security like mobile fencing at the Capitol and the hiring of hundreds of Capitol Police officers. The funding proposal, which is likely to account for costs associated with enhanced security and the damage to the Capitol, is expected in the coming week, according to a Democratic aide, and it’s likely to turn attention on Capitol Hill back to how Congress is responding to the January 6 attack.
The House is already upgrading its security. During the recess this week, crews were in the process of installing bulletproof doors on the entrances to the gallery, and eventually all doors leading to the House will be replaced. It’s an improvement that aides say was in the works before the insurrection.