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How a once-bipartisan commission to investigate the Capitol Riot fell apart

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It was the investigation that never was.

After months of talk, the independent commission to investigate the events surrounding January 6 is now on life support, likely to fail in the US Senate as soon as next week when Republicans are expected to filibuster the legislation.

Behind the scenes, mistrust, disinterest and raw political considerations all contributed to Republicans ultimately moving to kill a January 6 commission that was once heralded by both sides as an important step in understanding one of the darkest days at the Capitol in US history. The effort is poised to become another casualty left in the wake of a bitterly divided Congress and GOP members allegiance to former President Donald Trump, lawmakers and aides tell CNN.

There’s plenty of finger pointing on both sides, the swift Republican moves to scuttle the effort, undercutting the House GOP lawmaker who negotiated the deal, was driven by the political considerations heading into the midterms and the fact that Trump — whose role leading up to January 6 would be a key part of the commission’s work — is central to Republicans’ plans to win back control Congress.

The deal was announced a week ago, but the members negotiating it had been close to striking an agreement even longer than that.

On the cusp of a deal

After months of little progress, House Homeland Security Chairman Bennie Thompson briefed the Democratic leadership on May 8 about his progress with John Katko, the committee’s top Republican who hailed from a district that had voted for both Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden in the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections and one of the 10 Republicans who voted to impeach Trump.

The two men tasked with striking a deal on the commission were close to an agreement, Thompson said, according to a source familiar with the call.

There were other considerations, however, Thompson told his team. Katko wanted to wait to announce a deal until after Rep. Liz Cheney was ousted from her House GOP leadership position. The week before Cheney had broken with her leadership, arguing that the January 6 commission needed to have a narrow scope, not a broad one exploring all political violence over the year like GOP leaders had wanted.

“As soon as the vote on Liz Cheney is taken, he will be prepared to do a joint press statement,” Thompson said, according to the source.

On May 11, one day before the House GOP conference removed Cheney from her leadership position, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican, sent a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi responding to her last offer. The letter, which was obtained by CNN has not been previously reported, shows that McCarthy and Pelosi did have dialogue on the commission even as Thompson and Katko were deputized to make a deal.

The letter, however, also laid the groundwork for McCarthy’s ultimate opposition. He once again said that the scope of the commission should look at political violence beyond January 6, and he also said that the commission should conclude its work by November 1, a tight window to hit.

‘I’m gonna look through it’

Moments after Rep. Elise Stefanik, a New York Republican, was elected to become the new GOP conference chairwoman, the statement announcing a bipartisan deal on the commission between Thompson and Katko was released, a major development. But the GOP leader who had just played a key role pushing Cheney out the door and replacing her with Stefanik wasn’t enthusiastic.

Swarmed by reporters, McCarthy wasn’t prepared to weigh in definitively.

“I’m gonna look through it,” McCarthy told reporters scrumming around him. “We had an officer killed on Good Friday. If this commission is going to come forth to tell us how to protect this facility in the future, you want to make sure that in the scope you can look at all that.”

Asked point blank if he had signed off on the final deal before the release went out, McCarthy said “no, no, no.”

Was that a problem, he was asked.

“No,” he replied.

Behind the scenes, Katko had been briefing the minority leader regularly on how talks with Thompson were going, aides say. The two members were close colleagues and McCarthy had given his blessing to Katko to negotiate with Thompson directly. But, McCarthy had also been clear that he wanted final sign off before any final deal was agreed to. Just days before the release went out, Katko walked McCarthy through what he was thinking, a source told CNN. But, McCarthy raised some concerns, specifically about the scope that would be allowed in the commission.

On Friday, the deal was announced , but McCarthy had not give his final OK.

“It was a case of an over-invested chairman,” one GOP aide told CNN.

McCarthy turns to McConnell

Quickly it became clear that there was only one way for Republicans to stop the commission from going forward. Now that a deal was reached in the House, it was going to pass in a Democratic-controlled body. All eyes for leadership turned to the Senate.

In order for the commission to pass, Democrats would need 10 Republicans to join them. It seemed plausible in the immediate aftermath of the deal being announced. Seven Republicans, after all, had voted to convict Trump over the events of January 6 during the former President’s second impeachment trial.

But McCarthy had already been reaching out to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky, and the two spoke last week after the deal was announced. McCarthy wanted to talk to McConnell before issuing his final statement that he was opposed to the commission, an aide told CNN, knowing McConnell would have a good sense of where things were headed in his own conference.

Still, when the Senate returned to Washington for votes Monday evening, Republicans sounded optimistic a commission would happen. The Senate’s No. 2 Republican John Thune predicted a commission would pass “in some form,” while Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said he thought a commission to study the leadup to January 6 was a good idea, and he wasn’t concerned about the scope.

The Senate Republican leader approached his conference carefully. He wanted to hear from his members before making a decision on the commission, but he also ensured that GOP senators heard from the two key Republicans leading the Senate’s bipartisan investigation into January 6. McConnell put it to his conference to discuss at their weekly lunch hosted by Republican Sen. Roy Blunt, one of the two Republicans.

During that meeting, Blunt, the chairman of the Rules Committee, talked about the work already underway between his committee and the Senate Homeland Committee. Sen. Rob Portman, a Republican from Ohio, also walked the conference through the fact that they had been working in a bipartisan fashion for months to release a report in a matter of weeks that would address underlying security failures at the US Capitol. GOP leaders pointed to the investigations at the Department of Justice and raised concerns about the scope of the commission, arguing that another commission wasn’t necessary.

“My view the whole time is that you need to demonstrate a need for a commission because there will be a price and not just the price of paying for the commission, but the price of waiting for the commission to make its report before we do things we know we need to do,” Blunt told reporters after the lunch.

Still, McConnell waited until the following morning to make his opposition crystal clear. On Wednesday morning, McConnell told his members he wouldn’t support the commission. And at a previously scheduled coffee sponsored by Blunt, McCarthy would make his case to about a dozen Senate Republicans — one of whom had been publicly supportive of the commission just days before — why a commission wasn’t a good idea.

In the coffee, members and aides tell CNN, McCarthy expressed concerns and skepticism about how Pelosi had handled the negotiations.

The message was convincing to Republicans. Sen. Mike Rounds, a Republican from South Dakota, who had told reporters Tuesday that he was still reviewing the House bill, but was open to it, came out opposed to it after the coffee.

“From my discussions with my colleagues, they want to get everything out. But they also don’t want it to be the focus of the 2022 election. And they don’t want to be in a position where they don’t feel it’s a bipartisan approach,” Rounds said.

Republican senators get in line

He wasn’t the only one. A GOP key senator, who had voted to convict Trump of impeachment months before, was also opposed.

Sen. Richard Burr, the Republican from North Carolina who had led a bipartisan investigation on the Intelligence Committee into Russian interference in the 2016 election, played an important role behind the scenes in convincing Republicans the commission was unnecessary, a source told CNN. Burr educated Republicans on the logistics of setting up a broad and sweeping bipartisan investigation, which he had done during the Senate Intelligence panel’s three-year Russia probe, telling his colleagues that it was going to take months at least to hire and get security clearances needed, a talking point many Republican senators repeated in announcing their opposition.

The timing was a key factor — and put Democrats in a no-win situation, because Republicans warned they didn’t want the investigation to spill into the 2022 midterm campaign season, with a report detailing the role that Trump played in the lead-up to the January 6 insurrection blowing up their messaging to try to win back the House and the Senate. The deal that was struck sought to tamp down that concern by putting an end date on the commission of December 31, 2021.

But Burr’s argument undercut that rationale for such a quick process — because that would leave merely six months for a commission to be selected and staffed up, along with conducting the investigation and issuing a report.

The 9/11 Commission, by comparison, was created in November 2002 and didn’t issue its report until July 2004, nearly a year-and-a-half later.

Senate Republicans found other reasons to nitpick the deal that Katko had struck, too, in order to publicly justify their opposition. They complained that the staffing would be controlled by Democrats, even though the language used in the bill was identical to the 9/11 Commission. Some argued that congressional committees were more effective than commissions at getting to the bottom of an issue.

But in the end, the political considerations with the midterms looming appear to that have overruled any desire for an independent commission that could offer a definitive account of what transpired on January 6. Only a handful of Republicans seem poised to support debating the bill when the Senate votes next week. Even moderates like Sen. Susan Collins of Maine have said they have to see changes before supporting it.

Graham didn’t come out against a commission, but said he was inclined to trust the judgment of Blunt and Portman and wanted to hear more about their reasons for being against it.

Thune, who one day earlier said he thought the Senate would approve a commission, acknowledged that the midterm politics were playing an important role in the GOP opposition, arguing that a commission “could be weaponized politically and drug into next year.”

“Anything that gets us rehashing the 2020 elections I think is a day lost on being able to draw a contrast between us and the Democrats’ very radical left-wing agenda,” Thune said.

Lingering tensions in the House GOP

On Monday, the day before McCarthy came out against the deal Katko brokered, the pair passed each other in the hallway in front of reporters and seemed cordial and casual. As McCarthy was being repeatedly asked by reporters if he supported the deal that he previously said he didn’t sign off on, Katko walked by McCarthy, pointed to his office and said to the Minority Leader, “I’ll see you in there soon,” underscoring that the two were in regular communication.

Even after McCarthy made clear he would not support Katko’s deal, the pair never went after each other directly, each dancing around the fact that staying true to their position meant they were in direct opposition of each other.

“I appreciate that he’s allowing us to vote the way we want to vote and I appreciate him respecting the fact that we brought the bill to a good place. And not everyone is going to agree on every bill,” Katko said Tuesday after McCarthy came out in opposition to the deal.

But there were lingering tensions for some Republicans over the difficult spot McCarthy had put Katko in. Early in the week, House GOP leaders had made a point to say they were not whipping members to oppose the legislation. But then numbers began leaking out that 40 or even 50 Republicans might support the legislation, and House GOP leaders got in motion. House Minority Whip Steve Scalise reversed himself and said that GOP leaders recommended members voting against the bill — even though his office tried to say they weren’t officially whipping the measure.

As the bill was being voted on in the floor, McCarthy and Katko were huddled in separate groups on the floor, with their respective allies and staff around them. The pair did not seem to address or acknowledge each other, and kept a comfortable distance throughout the entire vote.

In the end, 35 Republicans voted in favor of the legislation, including all 10 Republicans who voted to impeach Trump. It was a significant number and a victory for Katko. But it appears to have done little to change the minds of senators who are poised to officially kill the bill next week.

Thompson, who negotiated the deal with Katko, blamed McCarthy for its quick demise. Thompson tried to discredit the narrative McCarthy has been peddling, that he wasn’t included in negotiations in the lead up to the deal’s announcement, on Wednesday ahead of the vote.

“It’s quite unfortunate that the Minority Leader has, at the last moment, raised issues that, basically, we had gone past, and there was no issue, despite all his talk now,” Thompson said on Wednesday. “But I guess that’s politics.”

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