McConnell: I cannot support this “slanted” January 6 commission

Yesterday afternoon he said Senate Republicans were undecided, then last night Trump put out a statement slamming the commission proposal. Today McConnell’s come out against it. It’s tempting from that set of facts to conclude that Trump cowed him into opposing the idea, but according to Axios it’s not true. McConnell told GOP senators at lunch yesterday that he would vote no.

What’s interesting is that it seems he’s not sure he’ll have 41 votes to filibuster it. You’d expect the caucus to feel intimidated into solidarity on a matter like the commission, which populist bigwigs like Trump and Tucker Carlson are against adamantly. Maybe asking them to whitewash a riot that threatened their own lives is a bridge too far.

There’s drama in that chamber but there’s also drama in the House. Despite Kevin McCarthy’s best efforts to hold his caucus together in opposition, it looks like multiple House Republicans will vote yes today on Pelosi’s commission bill.

Dozens of Republicans are privately considering voting for the Jan. 6 commission — which McCarthy himself said he opposed earlier Tuesday, even after he deputized one of his allies, Rep. John Katko of New York, to strike a bipartisan agreement on the proposal. In a sign of momentum, the bipartisan House Problem Solvers Caucus, of which Katko is a member, formally voted to endorse the legislation Tuesday evening…

A big bipartisan vote in the House could also put more pressure on Senate Republicans to get behind the proposal.

As one GOP lawmaker put it: “The genie is out of the bottle, and people are trying to put it back in.”

There’s no telling yet how many GOPers will back the bill, but…

One problem for McCarthy is that one of his own deputies, John Katko, negotiated the terms of the bill for Republicans. Maybe McCarthy thought Katko was doomed to fail, at which point the GOP could say that they made a good-faith effort to compromise before voting no on a party line. But Katko didn’t fail. He reached a deal with Dems in which each party would appoint five members of the commission. At that point McCarthy stabbed him in the back by declaring his opposition to the bill and had Steve Scalise start whipping votes against it, despite the fact that leadership had said earlier they’d allow members to vote their conscience. McCarthy is clearly suddenly worried about a “dam break” within his own caucus.

And if that happens, he’ll be trapped between two unhappy constituencies. Trump will be furious, of course, that McCarthy failed to “protect” him and the insurrectionists by mustering unanimous or nearly unanimous GOP opposition to the bill. But multiple outlets are reporting that Katko’s allies and sympathizers within the caucus are also pissed off at McCarthy for throwing him under the bus after deputizing him to negotiate. Everything McCarthy’s done lately has been geared at maximizing his chances at becoming Speaker in 2023, but as the caucus lurches from one wrenching controversy to another, the idea of having him in charge once they enjoy a House majority becomes less and less palatable.

In fact, there may be a few extra Republican votes for the bill today mainly as an expression of solidarity with Katko, to signal to McCarthy how poorly he’s handled this.

McCarthy has special reasons to oppose the commission, though. Or does he?

“There is a lot of drama right now and Kevin is in a perilous position,” said a third Republican source. “Whether it’s the January 6th commission, or if the Justice Department comes calling, he has information about the rally, the insurrection and Trump’s words and state of mind.”

Democrats and even some Republicans have suggested that McCarthy should be a witness during any congressional investigation into the January 6 attack — particularly given the phone call he had with Trump on that day.

But it’s unclear how real a threat that is. Thanks to the deal Katko negotiated, the current bill gives McCarthy the power to appoint two of the five Republican members of the commission and, with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, the commission’s vice-chair. A majority of Republican appointees could block any effort to subpoena McCarthy.

Republicans on the commission *could* protect him from having to testify, which would place him in the agonizing position of possibly giving testimony that’s damaging to Trump. But they might not. The commissioners would be drawn from outside the pool of current officeholders. Get a few people with integrity on the panel and they might haul McCarthy in.

As for McConnell’s opposition, I think it’s a function of his “un-Cheney” approach to “stop the steal” and the insurrection. Cheney wants to tackle those subjects head on, believing that having the party rebuke both is the only way to divert it from trying to overturn the next election won by a Democrat. McConnell would rather sweep both topics under the rug and focus on Biden, believing that’s the only way to keep the party united before the midterms. McConnell has always been a “just win, baby” politician, which is why he voted to acquit Trump on a technicality in February. He said his piece about Trump’s malfeasance at the time and now he’s done talking about it, not wanting to alienate any GOP constituencies before 2022 — and not wanting to give his own caucus a justification to try to oust him the way the House GOP did Cheney. Opposing the commission is in line with that. He just wants to move on.

It’s also in line with the fact that his strategy for limiting Trump’s influence over the party is completely different from Cheney’s. Cheney thinks (or hopes, rather) that if enough Republican officials repudiate Trump’s election claims, it’ll lead more GOP voters to view him as a charlatan and weaken his grip on Republicans. McConnell is under no such illusions. His “strategy” for Trump is nothing more or less than hoping for a deus ex machina. Maybe the DOJ will send Trump to prison, or maybe old age will catch up to him. Either way, establishing a commission would do nothing to solve McConnell’s Trump problem. If anything, it might make it worse by creating a new litmus test for populists: You either agree with Them that the insurrection was a travesty or you agree with Us that it was no big deal. Having to pass that litmus test is another headache for the House and Senate caucuses ahead of 2022, one that’s already begun to bedevil some of them. For instance:

Lying about the danger from the Capitol riot will soon be as mandatory for GOP politicians hoping to avoid a primary as doubting the legitimacy of Biden’s victory is. See why McConnell would rather not have a commission out there forcing him to confront the subject anew?

John Thune, McConnell’s number two, is also worried about the party being thrown off-message:

I don’t get that. Trump will be out on the trail campaigning aggressively in primaries next summer against Republicans who contradict his claims that the election was stolen. The party’s going to have to rehash 2020 whether it wants to or not, thanks to its leader. So what does it matter if there’s a commission investigating the matter at the same time?

Watch McConnell’s floor speech this morning below. It offered two critiques of the commission. One is that it’s redundant given that there are hundreds of federal prosecutions pending against insurrectionists plus investigations being conducted by Congress. But those investigations won’t serve the same function that the commission will. Criminal probes won’t create a comprehensive narrative of January 6, only isolated accounts of what a particular individual did that day. And even those accounts will be incomplete since they won’t concern themselves with non-criminal activity, like incitement. Congressional investigations will overlap somewhat with the commission, but those are always bitterly partisan and prone to grandstanding. A body of investigators who don’t currently hold office is less prone to getting (as) bogged down in that sort of theater. McConnell’s other complaint is that the commission is “slanted” because it’ll focus exclusively on January 6 instead of expanding to include the riots in American cities last summer and fall, but that’s like complaining that the 9/11 commission didn’t expand to focus on domestic terrorism like the Oklahoma City bombing too. The insurrection was sui generis, an attack on the seat of government aimed at overturning a presidential election. The riots can have their own commission, but insisting that the two be combined is a naked attempt to distract from how uniquely dangerous the “stop the steal” effort was.

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