Republican senators on Friday drowned the hopes of an independent, bipartisan commission to investigate the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol, gathering enough members of their own conference to block legislation to establish the panel.
Though it received overall majority support in the chamber, the procedural vote, a cloture vote on a motion to proceed, to the legislation fell short of the 60 votes needed, 54-35. Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Susan Collins of Maine, Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, Mitt Romney of Utah, Ben Sasse of Nebraska, and Rob Portman of Ohio were the only Republicans who voted to end debate on whether to take up the legislation.
The vote, which had been expected on Thursday, was delayed after some Republican senators, including Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, consumed floor time that brought the chamber to a painfully slow cadence and culminated at around 3 a.m. Friday morning.
Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., said he struck an agreement that ensured the commission vote would happen “in the light of day” and not in the early morning hours.
On Thursday, the family and colleagues of a Capitol Police officer who died shortly after defending the Capitol on Jan. 6 met with several GOP senators to try to convince them to vote for the commission.
But even the pleas of fallen officer Brian Sicknick’s mother, Gladys, as well as Sandra Garza, his companion, and Capitol Police Officer Harry Dunn and Metro Police Officer Michael Fanone, who were among the cops who defended the Capitol on Jan. 6, were not enough to garner the 10 Republican senators needed to proceed to debate on the measure.
“Although we respectfully disagreed on the added value of the proposed commission, I did commit to doing everything I could to ensure all their questions will be answered,” Johnson said in a statement Thursday after meeting with Sicknick’s family and colleagues.
Johnson has said the Jan. 6 insurrection was overall a “peaceful protest” with the exception of “agitators” who incited the crowd and breached the Capitol. In addition to the death of Sicknick and four others, approximately 140 Capitol Police and Metropolitan Police Department officers were injured in the pro-Trump Capitol attack.
Gladys Sicknick met with Johnson Thursday morning and said GOP opposition to the commission is a slap in the face to officers “because they put their lives on the line.”
Republican senators who sank the hopes of a 9/11-style commission cited similar reasons their colleagues in the House did, including that the commission would be duplicative of ongoing investigative efforts by congressional committees and the Department of Justice, and that the scope is not wide enough.
“There’s no new fact about that day we need the Democrats’ extraneous commission to uncover,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has said, adding the DOJ is undertaking criminal investigations in which hundreds have been arrested and charged.
Sen. Charles E. Grassley said he wanted to see a “wider scope.”
“Well, it ought to include anything where there’s terrorist activities and particularly what happened last summer,” the Iowa Republican said, apparently referring to Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020.
Sen. Richard C. Shelby said it would take a lot to get him to support a commission.
“Go back to the drawing board and show us the need,” the Alabama Republican said. “Have some hearings and show the need for a commission and do it in a real bipartisan way so that way we get 100 votes, okay.”
Another consideration for Republicans is how former President Donald Trump would retaliate against them if they supported such a commission. The panel could have exposed more information about what Trump was doing as rioters ransacked the Capitol. The day before the House was set to vote on the commission, Trump called it a “Democrat trap” and said he hoped McConnell and House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy were listening.
But on Thursday, the South Carolina Republican said he thinks the Jan. 6 bill is not a viable option: “I don't think it will ever work. It’s too partisan” — what has become the GOP leadership’s standard talking point about the commission.
Some senators didn't have an answer for what they would need to see in order to vote for the measure.
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, used his staff to shield him from questions about the commission. Senate Republican Conference Chairman John Barrasso of Wyoming, when asked about what he needed to see in the bill to support it, simply said: “I’m a 'no' vote on cloture.”
Tim Scott, R-S.C., when asked the same question, called it a “good question,” adding, “I don’t have the answer to that.”
“I just can’t think of anything,” Sen. James M. Inhofe, R-Okla., said, and noted he thinks the motive of the commission is to “string this out politically.” When asked if the 9/11 commission was a success, Inhofe deferred to a member of his staff and said he needed to think about it.
Democrats criticized Republicans as blindly loyal to Trump and scared of his potential political wrath.
“I think it's just a fear of Donald Trump that is just ridiculous and makes no sense at all,” Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, said.
The plan for a 9/11-style commission was crafted in a bipartisan manner in the House before arriving in the Senate. House Homeland Security Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., and ranking member John Katko, R-N.Y., composed the plan that would issue a final report by Dec. 31, 2021, with findings on the facts and causes of the attack and recommendations to prevent future attacks.
The commission would have subpoena power that would require agreement between the chair and vice char or a majority vote of the 10 member commission. Commissioners would be appointed by congressional leaders and would be equally split: five Republicans and five Democrats.
Those on the commission would have expertise in at least two areas of the following: law enforcement, civil rights, civil liberties, privacy, intelligence, the armed forces, law, counterterrorism and cybersecurity.
But that measure — despite Katko's acknowledgement that Thompson made concessions to come to an agreement with Republicans — drew the support of only 35 House Republicans after GOP leaders recommended a “no” vote. One of those who voted for the panel, Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, was recently removed from her leadership position of conference chair for acknowledging Trump did not win the election and pushing back on other lies about election fraud.
Before the House passed the commission bill 252-175 on May 19, the family of Capitol Police Officer Howard Liebengood, who died by suicide days after the insurrection, called on Congress to act.
“We believe a thorough, non-partisan investigation into the root causes of and the response to the January 6th riot is essential for our nation to move forward. Howie’s death was an immediate outgrowth of those events,” the Liebengood family said.