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House Passes Bill To Investigate Capitol Riot, But Its Fate In Senate Is Unclear

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky is opposing a 9/11-style commission to investigate the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
Jacquelyn Martin
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky is opposing a 9/11-style commission to investigate the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

Updated May 19, 2021 at 6:53 PM ET

The House has passed a bipartisan plan to create a 9/11-style commission to investigate the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, despite significant opposition from Republican lawmakers.

The vote was 252-175, with 35 Republicans joining all Democrats.

The vote came the same day that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell announced his opposition to the commission, dealing a setback to the proposal's chances in the U.S. Senate.

Just a day ago, McConnell, R-Ky., signaled the party was open to the commission to investigate the January riot by supporters of former President Donald Trump but added he wanted "to read the fine print." That openness was short-lived.

"After careful consideration, I've made a decision to oppose the House Democrats' slanted and unbalanced proposal for another commission to study the events of Jan. 6," he said Wednesday on the Senate floor.

McConnell's opposition, which he shared the morning after Trump urged Republicans to oppose the bill, complicates the commission's fate in the evenly divided Senate. The bill needs 10 GOP senators to vote with all Democrats ultimately to become law.

On Tuesday, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy came out against the legislation even though a deal on the commission was reached last week by House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., and the panel's ranking Republican, Rep. John Katko of New York. McCarthy had charged Katko with reaching a deal on the panel.

Ahead of the vote Wednesday, Katko spoke passionately in support of the commission.

"To my friends on both sides of the aisle - I welcome honest, vigorous, and civil debate. At the end of the day, I strongly believe this is a fair and necessary legislation," he said on the House floor. "I encourage all members, Republicans and Democrats alike, to put down their swords for once, just for once, and support this bill."

He underscored that he and Thompson crafted the bill in a way to ensure it is "depoliticized entirely."

"There is an equal number of members on both sides, appointed by both sides, they have equal subpoena power - they can't subpoena one person without the other person on the other side of the aisle agreeing, they have to hire a staff together, all those things," he said. "We did this for a reason, because that's exactly what made the 9/11 commission successful."

Future in Senate

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D.Y., lamented Republican opposition to the panel, saying Wednesday that "both sides" negotiated on the commission for months.

"At the 11th hour, the House Republican leadership turned tail, threw its own negotiators under the bus and decided to try to sabotage the commission," he said on the Senate floor. "Once again, they are caving to Donald Trump and proving that the Republican Party is still drunk off the big lie."

Schumer said he plans to bring the measure to the floor after its House passage despite McConnell's opposition.

In his remarks Wednesday, McConnell pointed to ongoing law enforcement investigations that have resulted in hundreds of arrests as well as bipartisan investigations into the events of Jan. 6. He said a commission would result in duplicative efforts.

"So there is, has been and there will continue to be no shortage, no shortage of robust investigations by two separate branches of the federal government," McConnell said. "So ... it's not at all clear what new facts or additional investigation yet another commission could actually lay on top of existing efforts by law enforcement and Congress. The facts have come out, and they'll continue to come out."

McConnell also accused Democrats of negotiating in "bad faith," from initial talks to other features he said were designed to "centralize control over the commission's process and conclusion in Democratic hands."

Trump blasted the proposed commission Tuesday, calling it a "Democrat trap" and urging Republicans to "get much tougher and much smarter."

"Hopefully, Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy are listening!" he said in a statement.

Previously, both McCarthy and McConnell had expressed concerns about the panel's focus being too narrow, only focusing on the events of Jan. 6. Some Republicans want any investigation to also focus on the unrest in U.S. cities last summer, including protests carried out by left-wing activists.

Some Senate Republicans expressed early support for the commission's focus, including Minority Whip John Thune of South Dakota and Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Mike Rounds of South Dakota and Mitt Romney of Utah.

But in the wake of McConnell's opposition to the commission, Rounds walked his support back.

"The way that the bill is written right now, I would feel compelled to vote against it," Rounds told Capitol Hill reporters on Wednesday.

Thune told reporters Senate Republicans haven't done a whip count yet on the legislation but noted the increasing opposition to the commission.

"There are some of our members who I think obviously have an interest in seeing a commission go forward," he said. "Others who, I think, believe it will be counterproductive because of the work that's already been done and that it could be weaponized politically and drug into next year."

Outside support for commission

In a letter to members of Congress, members of the U.S. Capitol Police expressed "profound disappointment" with McCarthy and McConnell over their opposition.

"On Jan. 6th, where some officers served their last day in a US Capitol Police uniform, and not by choice, we would hope that the Members whom we took an oath to protect, would at the very minimum, support an investigation to get to the bottom of EVERYONE responsible and hold them 100 percent accountable no matter the title or position they hold or held," their letter reads.

They added: "This letter comes to you anonymously because as US Capitol Police officers, we are expected to remain neutral and do our jobs with honor and integrity. It's unfortunate that our 'bosses' (Congress) are not held to the same standard."

On Wednesday evening, the U.S. Capitol Police said the department doesn't take positions on legislation.

Many members gave their thanks to the Capitol Police during debate on the House floor ahead of the vote.

"If it had not been for the brave Capitol and Metropolitan policemen and women that they, who knows how many of our heads would have been swinging on those gallows that were constructed on the east front of the Capitol," Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., said, recalling the violence of Jan. 6.

The commission also has support from former New Jersey Gov. Tom Kean and former Rep. Lee Hamilton of Indiana, who led the 9/11 Commission.

"As Chairman and Vice Chairman of the 9/11 Commission, unity of purpose was key to the effectiveness of the group. We put country above party, without bias, the events before, during and after the attack. We sought to understand our vulnerabilities in order to prevent future attacks or future acts of terrorism," the pair said in a statement Wednesday.

"Today, democracy faces a new threat. The January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol was one of the darkest days in the history of our country. Americans deserve an objective and an accurate account of what happened. As we did in the wake of September 11, it's time to set aside partisan politics and come together as Americans in common pursuit of truth and justice."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Claudia Grisales is a congressional reporter assigned to NPR's Washington Desk.
Barbara Sprunt is a producer on NPR's Washington desk, where she reports and produces breaking news and feature political content. She formerly produced the NPR Politics Podcast and got her start in radio at as an intern on NPR's Weekend All Things Considered and Tell Me More with Michel Martin. She is an alumnus of the Paul Miller Reporting Fellowship at the National Press Foundation. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Pennsylvania native.