WASHINGTON — Despite Democratic complaints, Republicans jumped into a new election-season investigation of the deadly Benghazi assault on Friday, naming majority members of a special House committee. Democrats mulled a boycott of the panel, which is inspiring bitter partisanship before even starting its work.
House Speaker John Boehner immediately took to social media to highlight his seven-member Republican team. Democrats have five seats to fill, if they decide to participate at all in what Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi derided as a “political stunt.”
“For whatever reason, everything seems to be partisan,” acknowledged Rep. Trey Gowdy, a second-term Republican and former prosecutor from South Carolina whom Boehner picked last week to head the committee. Gowdy expressed his hope that a fair Benghazi investigation would transcend politics, but he also suggested Democrats would have to accept that “one side gets more strikes than the other side when you’re constituting a jury.”
The Republicans’ roster includes veterans of previous House examinations of the Sept. 11, 2012, attack that killed a U.S. ambassador and three other Americans.
The House approved the formation of the committee Thursday, with every Republican voting in favor and only seven Democrats crossing party lines to join them. It is the eighth investigation thus far on Benghazi. The panel is authorized to work through the end of the year, past November’s midterm elections when the GOP hopes to win control of the Senate.
The Benghazi attack has become a conservative rallying cry, with Republicans accusing the Obama administration of intentionally misleading the public about the nature of the attack and stonewalling congressional investigators.
The rest of Boehner’s team includes four members of Congress who have investigated Benghazi already: the Intelligence Committee’s Lynn Westmoreland of Georgia and Mike Pompeo of Kansas, the Foreign Affairs Committee’s Jim Jordan of Ohio, and Martha Roby of Alabama, until recently an Armed Services Committee member. The others are Susan Brooks of Indiana and Peter Roskam of Illinois.
Democrats weighed their options as Pelosi sought a meeting with Boehner to discuss the operating rules of the special investigation.
Boehner has rejected the Democrats’ request for equal membership on the panel. Democrats say they’ll participate nonetheless if they get GOP guarantees of fair access to documents, a voice on subpoenas and an equal chance to question witnesses. They say Republicans denied them such rights in a separate Benghazi probe.
“We must have standards,” Pelosi said at a news conference after Democrats held a strategy session Friday morning. Later, in a letter to Boehner, she held firm to her objections, saying the current rules would not prevent a repeat of the “unacceptable and repeated abuses” that she said have occurred in the parallel investigation by House Oversight Committee Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa of California.
“We don’t want a kangaroo court,” Democratic Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland told reporters. “We think that this whole Benghazi hearing is a waste of taxpayer dollars, but if at the very least they’re going to establish a fair process then we could participate.”
Some Democrats say they need to be there, no matter what, in this campaign season. While their participation could lend legitimacy to the proceedings, a boycott would prevent Democratic members from countering GOP claims and defending potential witnesses.
“The Democrats ought to be there every day, recording why it’s a sham,” argued Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., a veteran of congressional investigations.
Democratic Rep. Gerry Connolly of Virginia said the sentiment among his party’s members was shifting away from a boycott. But Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, a party leader, was among the unconvinced, saying, “If you’re going to have a hanging, don’t ask me to bring the noose.” Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut floated the idea of token participation with just one Democrat, but that didn’t seem to be attracting support.
The special investigation means high-profile hearings in the months leading up to the elections, with Republicans likely to target current and former administration officials. Almost certain to be called to testify is former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, a potential 2016 presidential candidate.
The Benghazi attack cost the life of Chris Stevens, the first American ambassador to be killed in the line of duty in more than three decades; information technology specialist Sean Smith and CIA security contractors Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty.
Pelosi said Democrats have heard from the families of two of the men killed, who asked, “Don’t take us down this path again.”
Democrats don’t buy Boehner’s repeated statements that the process won’t be partisan.
Pelosi pointed to an interview Gowdy gave last week in which he argued that he already had proof of Obama administration wrongdoing. “I can’t disclose that evidence yet, but I have evidence that there was a systematic intentional decision to withhold certain documents from Congress, and we’re just sick of it,” Gowdy told Fox News.
The special committee would have to be reauthorized to continue working into next year. It has no explicit financial constraints.
In the 20 months since the attack, multiple independent, bipartisan and GOP-led probes have faulted the State Department for inadequate security in Benghazi, leading to four demotions. No attacker has yet been arrested.
Associated Press writers Erica Werner contributed to this report.