WASHINGTON — House Republicans and Democrats dug in their heels Wednesday over how a special committee investigation of the deadly attack on the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi should proceed, with the sides sparring over the composition of the panel and its operating rules. A vote to establish the probe is expected Thursday.
House Speaker John Boehner vowed that the examination would be "all about getting to the truth" of the Obama administration's response to the attack and not be a partisan, election-year circus. "This is a serious investigation," he said, accusing the president and his team of withholding the true story of how militants attacked a U.S. compound in the Libyan port city on Sept. 11, 2012, killing Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
The committee's establishment is all but a formality in the GOP-run House, but Democrats have yet to say whether they will participate in or boycott the investigation. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Rep. Steny Hoyer, the No. 2 Democrat, have sent a letter to Boehner demanding urging him to scrap his plan for a panel of seven Republicans and five Democrats. They said membership should be evenly split.
Democrats can vote against the committee's establishment and still decide to take part in its proceedings. After a meeting of House Democrats in the Capitol Wednesday, Reps. Xavier Becerra, D-Calif., and Joe Crowley, D-N.Y., said no decision would be made on the party's strategy until a response from Boehner is received. Still, they likened the idea of the committee to a "circus," a "charade" and a "kangaroo court" that includes no time or cost limits, and invests all power in Boehner's hand-picked chairman for the investigation, Republican Rep. Trey Gowdy of South Carolina.
"It can go on forever," Becerra told reporters. "The amount of money they can spend is undefined and can be unlimited."
With November's midterm elections looming closer, Republicans have made Benghazi a central plank of their strategy to wrest control of the Senate from the Democrats.
They say the White House, concerned primarily with protecting President Barack Obama in the final weeks of his re-election campaign, misled the nation by playing down intelligence suggesting Benghazi was a major, al-Qaida-linked terrorist attack. They accuse the administration of stonewalling congressional investigators ever since, pointing specifically to emails written by U.S. officials in the days after the attack but only released last week.
"A line was crossed," said Boehner, who only last month said there was no need for a select committee. The correspondence among top officials showed the White House "played a more significant role" in deciding how the attack ought to be publicly described, he told reporters Wednesday. Unveiling the legislation late Tuesday, Boehner said the panel would get "as much time as needed" because of the administration's "history of slow-walking information."
The Obama administration has denied wrongdoing on Benghazi, but Democrats are in a bind. They don't want their presence to provide credibility to what they believe will be a partisan forum for attacks on the president and his top aides. Boycotting the committee would mean losing the ability to counter Republican claims and provide cover for potential witnesses such as former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, the presumed front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016.
Separately Wednesday, the State Department said Secretary of State John Kerry would travel to Mexico later this month, making him unavailable to satisfy a subpoena for him to testify May 21 before the House Oversight Committee on its ongoing investigation into Benghazi. Kerry said Tuesday he'd comply with "whatever responsibilities" he has to Congress. Frederick Hill, a committee spokesman, said the department hadn't been in touch with the panel about how Kerry would comply.
Pelosi is basing her demand for an equal number of seats — or votes— on the select panel on the model set by House Ethics Committee investigations. Those committees have an equal number of members from both parties.
But previous "select" committees have not, reflecting the parties' majority and minority status. For the most recent such special committee, established by Pelosi to examine global warming, Democrats controlled the House at the time and had a 9-6 advantage in membership on the committee.
In an interview Tuesday with The Associated Press, Gowdy dismissed the call for an even split on the panel. "We're in the majority for a reason," he said. He reiterated his rejection in a television appearance Wednesday.
A select committee isn't bound by jurisdictional issues that can limit investigations by normal congressional panels. In 2005, Pelosi and then-Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid refused to appoint Democrats to a GOP-led panel to investigate the response to Hurricane Katrina, believing it would be a whitewash of the Bush administration's response.
On Benghazi, the Obama administration says officials tried to provide the public with the best information available after the attack at a time when U.S. embassies, consulates and other facilities were facing angry demonstrations across the Muslim world over a YouTube video mocking the Muslim prophet Mohammed. It originally attributed Benghazi to a similar protest that was hijacked by extremists, but retracted that account amid severe criticism.
Now Democrats are accusing the Republicans of trying to generate a scandal to drum up political support ahead of the midterm elections and, with the next presidential race already in mind, to target Clinton's record as America's top diplomat. They say a select panel is unnecessary given several ongoing investigations in Congress, though no one has publicly called yet for a boycott. White House spokesman Jay Carney has been similarly vague on a response, saying this week the administration cooperates with "legitimate" congressional oversight.