GOP Senators Dig In Against January 6 Commission

Many say they still haven't read the legislation. But they have problems with it.

Good morning. I know some of you are tired of January 6 coverage. But we think this is a critical moment for congressional Republicans. It’s a window into the changing Republican Party in this post-Trump but still-Trump era, and their rejection of a backward-looking commission for the January 6 attack on the Capitol tells us a lot about their plans moving forward. We’ve got an item later in this edition about NASA Administrator Bill Nelson and his recent appearance before Congress, as a treat. But first, we’ll take a tour through the Senate GOP conference as its members try to come up with a solid justification for rejecting the commission.

This Might Be Easier If You’d Read The Bill

Most Senate Republicans are opposed to the House’s proposed independent commission to look into the January 6 attack on the Capitol and the events leading up to it. They’re just not exactly sure why.

In interviews with more than 20 GOP senators on Thursday, Republicans raised fears about how the commission would work, how long it would last, and whether it would amount to a partisan circus. The answers to many of these questions are in the text of the relatively straightforward, 19-page bill passed by the House this week. When pressed on the gap between the details of the bill and their portrayal of it, some senators simply admitted they hadn’t read the legislation. 

“If you’re going to turn a commission into a political partisan weapon, you know, use it to subpoena people to embarrass them, use it to want to make allegations that might prove useful in the 2022 elections, you’re actually contributing to the problem,” said Florida Sen. Marco Rubio—who initially expressed more openness to the commission in a conversation with The Dispatch on Monday night. “My general feeling is that if we can have a serious examination of the events leading up to, occurring, and in the aftermath of that day, we should do it,” Rubio said at the time, notably splitting with Republican leaders who called for the commission to also look into violence largely unrelated to January 6. He said Thursday he still hasn’t ruled out the possibility of supporting the commission, but he sounded a lot more skeptical.

“I’m worried about what it would do to our country to have a so-called independent commission that ultimately turns into a partisan political weapon that continues to exacerbate these tensions and divide people even more,” he said. “Because in a way, it sort of contributes to the very environment that made that day possible.”

Rubio’s concern that the commission will issue political subpoenas is addressed by the legislation: The commission would be evenly divided, with five members appointed by Democratic leaders and five appointed by Republican leaders. For Democrats to issue any subpoena, at least one of the five Republican members would have to agree to it. This was a key demand from GOP leaders—that their appointees would essentially have the power to veto subpoenas. That massive concession from Democrats hasn’t made much of an impression on Republican senators, though.

“Well, I’m still going through all the details of it,” Rubio said when The Dispatch pointed out how the commission would be structured and how subpoenas would be issued. “Honestly, we’ve got so much going on here. This is something the House just passed.”

“I haven’t even read it,” Rubio added. “I mean, it just came over. But just my overarching concern is I can already see the shadow of how this is going to be used for a political purpose, and I’m not interested in formalizing some partisan political weapon by either side.”

The bill text has been publicly available since last Friday. The two parties debated the contours of the commission for four months. It would take maybe a couple of minutes for a staffer to outline the important details for their boss—or just a few minutes longer for a lawmaker to actually read the legislation itself. There’s also, of course, a famous precedent that the bill can be compared with: The original September 11 commission legislation.

Montana Republican Steve Daines was among those who said he won’t back the commission. 

“It will turn into a great big political event for Schumer and Pelosi,” he told The Dispatch. Asked why he believes that, given that the commission would be evenly divided and require bipartisan support for subpoenas, Daines didn’t answer directly. “At the end of the day, it’s going to be Schumer and Pelosi-driven and this is all about continuing to litigate the impeachment trial of Trump,” Daines said.

In March, I wrote in this newsletter about House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s initial proposal for the commission, which I noted was “deeply partisan and hobbled the conversation from the get-go.” Pelosi’s plan would have given Democrats seven members of the commission while Republicans would have had only four. The chair of the commission, chosen by President Joe Biden, would have had unilateral subpoena power. It was a major departure from the structure of the 9/11 commission, and Republicans rightly said it wouldn’t have any credibility with the public as a result. But that’s not what the bill the House passed this week is.

The legislation the Senate will soon consider was negotiated by the top Democrat and top Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee. It’s miles apart from Pelosi’s first proposal. It follows closely in the footsteps of the 9/11 commission. Members would be limited to those who are not currently serving in government. The panel would be evenly divided and Democrats wouldn’t be able to do much of anything without Republican support. The GOP appointees would have equal say in where the probe goes and who gets subpoenaed. These were the two main demands from Republicans, and Democrats agreed to them. It also has a December 31, 2021 deadline for a final report—ensuring it wouldn’t drop in the thick of the 2022 midterm elections.

Rep. Don Bacon, one of the 35 House Republicans who bucked GOP leadership to support the commission, summarized it like this: He voted for the bill, he said, because Democrats “basically gave us what we wanted.” 

Many Republican senators, of course, don’t see it that way.

“So long as Schumer and Pelosi are in charge, the whole thing’s a travesty and completely partisan,” said Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana. 

Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, also questioned Democrats’ motivations. He said the commission, “unless it’s corrected,” would have a partisan bent. Pressed on why he believes it would be partisan as structured, Cornyn hyperbolically claimed the scope of the investigation would be limited “to one day.”

“You can’t look at the fifth or the seventh, but you can look at the sixth. That makes no sense to me. They ought to be able to follow wherever the evidence leads,” he told reporters.

But nothing in the bill limits the commission to examining such a small time frame. It calls for investigation into the lead-up to January 6 and the lessons learned from the attack, not just the events of that day. It also leaves room for commissioners to pursue different avenues of inquiry. Rep. John Katko, the Republican who negotiated the bill, has pushed back on this complaint from his colleagues. “If there are other issues outside of this scope, we can look into them,” he said of the commission’s authority on the House floor this week.

Still, there’s not much that could change the minds of most GOP senators. Asked if there’s anything Democrats could do to alter the text of the bill to win his support, Cornyn said he is reconsidering the idea that an outside commission is necessary at all. “I don’t know why we couldn’t do it internally,” he said. (In February, Cornyn tweeted: “I agree w/ Speaker Pelosi — a 911-type investigation is called for to help prevent this from happening again.”)

Deferral to congressional committees was a common theme on Thursday. 

“We already have bipartisan work going on in the committee,” Indiana Republican Sen. Todd Young told reporters. “And I want to see it come to its full fruition. I first think it’s appropriate to assess that, but I’m disinclined to be supportive of additional efforts if that report is thorough in my estimation.”

For what it’s worth, the committee hearings in both chambers have been lackluster. Members have struggled to get straight answers from the current and former officials who were responsible for security preparations and the response that day. The hearings also haven’t done much to build public trust about the facts of the attack—a primary goal of a potential outside commission. And an upcoming report from two Senate panels will have a pretty big gap in it, unless something changes in the next couple of weeks. Senators and their staff haven’t spoken to former President Donald Trump, his chief of staff, or others who were in the middle of the administration’s handling of January 6. 

“No,” Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, the top Republican on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, told reporters Thursday when asked if the committee had spoken with Trump or his top staff. “Our focus has been on preparation, the lack of preparation, and the response.”

He said the committee’s report is expected in early June.

Sen. Joni Ernst, an Iowa Republican, said Thursday she hasn’t looked at the House’s commission bill yet, but she wants to wait and see what the Senate committees come up with before moving forward on something new.

There are still plenty of unanswered questions about the complete failure of U.S. intelligence agencies and security officials to recognize and address the scale of the threat in advance, Trump’s handling of the events—what his involvement was in the response, what he said to House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy about the rioters on their phone call—and the Defense Department’s delay in supplying National Guard help to clear the building. Still, Republicans said they’ve been satisfied with the information gleaned thus far. 

“The security was not prepared for a large-scale riot, and they need to be better prepared,” Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul said. “I’m not sure what else any kind of commission would serve other than partisan purposes for Democrats.”

And Sen. Mike Braun echoed that sentiment. Asked if he’s at all curious about what Trump was doing during the attack, Braun said, “I think we all know.”

“I mean, there’s pretty well—we know that he was watching it. And then there was obviously some communication later on,” Braun told The Dispatch. “He was probably like many that never thought that the Capitol would be breached.”

Sen. James Lankford, a member of the Homeland Security panel, said the Senate committees investigating the attack don’t need to know what Trump was doing in the hours between the building first being breached and the National Guard’s arrival. “Why would that matter for the security here on this grounds?” he asked.

Lankford was in the middle of his objection to Arizona’s Electoral College results on January 6 when the Senate recessed because the building was being breached. He later withdrew his objection after the violence that day.

“If the goal of the commission, and what you’re describing the commission, is just to go after President Trump, that is what all of us assume as well,” Lankford said. “That the House is just, ‘Let’s try to reopen it and attack President Trump.’ But it’s not about facts.”

“You need to find somebody in the White House and go attack the president? That’s not relevant,” he added. 

It’s clear much of the opposition among Republicans to the commission boils down to that point. They don’t want to look into Trump’s behavior or pursue information that could harm Republicans at the ballot box, even as the former president continues to spread lies about the 2020 election. And some of them are willing to say so directly.

Senate GOP Whip John Thune told reporters earlier this week that he wants the Republican midterm message “to be on the kinds of things that the American people are dealing with: That's jobs and wages and the economy and national security, safe streets and strong borders—not relitigating the 2020 elections.”

"A lot of our members, and I think this is true of a lot of House Republicans, want to be moving forward and not looking backward. 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,” he said.

Sen. Mike Rounds, Thune’s colleague from South Dakota, made a similar point Thursday.

“A number of folks that are going to be working very hard on this election in 2022 are saying we’re not going to be involved in this if it’s going to impact that or it’s going to be used that way,” he said. Rounds suggested a commission might be something to look at after the 2022 midterm elections.

“It would be very good for the country if Republicans and Democrats could find a path forward, even if it doesn’t start until after the next election cycle,” he said. 

Rounds hasn’t ruled out the possibility of supporting the commission entirely. He said he wants to see a change to the bill’s language concerning staff hiring. If Democrats specifically noted in the text that GOP appointees can hire their own staff, he said, he would be inclined to support the bill.

Staff are essential to any commission like this. They’ll be doing the vast majority of the groundwork. Sens. Mitt Romney and Susan Collins have likewise raised questions about the staffing provisions, saying they may want changes. 

There’s nothing immediately objectionable in the bill concerning staff. The text calls for the chair, “in consultation with” the Republican vice-chair, to go about hiring personnel. The hiring process would also rely on more specific rules adopted by the whole commission—meaning, like the subpoenas, at least one GOP appointee would have to agree to those guidelines. The bill is based on the September 11 commission staff hiring language, and it’s the same as the language in a GOP-introduced commission bill from earlier this year.

“The commission creates rules as a team, and they then hire as a team,” Katko, the New York Republican who negotiated the deal in the House, said this week.

But, Republicans say, the January 6 attack was unique and there’s a dismal level of trust between the two parties. Given how widespread GOP fears are that the commission will turn into a political cudgel, additional language explicitly giving Republicans control of their own staffing could help ease GOP senators’ nerves.

Collins said she plans to speak to Democrats about the details of the staffing language.

“The concept of a commission is a good one and would help answer some unanswered questions as well as give us some lessons learned,” she told The Dispatch.

Democrats are open to making changes. 

“Of course they can hire staff. That’s never even been a question,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said at her weekly press conference yesterday.

Democrats would need to win over at least 10 Senate Republicans to pass the commission into law. With unified opposition from Republican leaders on Capitol Hill and Trump threatening “consequences” for those who break with the party line, that’s looking unlikely.

Pelosi on Thursday didn’t rule out the possibility of launching a select committee—one that actually would fulfill the GOP trepidation about Democrats wielding unilateral subpoena power—if the Senate doesn’t pass the commission measure. But she said she prefers the independent commission approach and projected optimism about its chances.

“The preference—not only preference, overwhelming preference—is for bipartisanship,” Pelosi said. “And I don’t think that what we’ve heard from the Senate is so bad compared to what we usually hear from the Senate."

Nelson Faces Questions on SpaceX Contract

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson made the case this week for Congress to fully fund the Biden administration’s budget request of $24.7 billion for the space agency in the upcoming fiscal year.

In his first committee appearance since being confirmed, Nelson testified Wednesday before a House Appropriations panel about the administration’s funding ask. He also fielded questions from lawmakers about the state of NASA’s mission to return to the lunar surface and its controversial decision last month to award only one contract—$2.9 billion to Elon Musk’s SpaceX—to develop the lunar landing system that will put the first astronauts on the moon since 1972.

NASA was initially expected to select two providers, but it chose just one after Congress appropriated only about one quarter of the amount the Trump administration requested for the human landing system in fiscal year 2021. It didn’t hurt that SpaceX’s bid for the contract amounted to less than half of that of its competitors.

“They just simply didn’t have enough to keep going forward with more than one lander,” Nelson said Wednesday, pointing to the budget shortfall.

Blue Origin and Dynetics, the other companies that were in the bidding, have both submitted formal complaints against NASA’s selection of SpaceX, triggering a review of the process. Nelson noted that even if their objections to the SpaceX contract fail, the other two firms will have opportunities for later lunar missions because the SpaceX deal applies only to the development of a lander and an initial crewed lunar landing.

“There are many additional landings that are planned for the moon,” Nelson told lawmakers.

The SpaceX decision has its critics on Capitol Hill. Lawmakers with an interest in propping up other competitors have sought in recent days to pass legislation calling for NASA to select a second firm to develop the human landing system. Last week, Sen. Maria Cantwell—a Democrat from Washington, where Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin is based—introduced an amendment to a sweeping research and development bill to require NASA to reopen the competition and select a second company for the job. 

Proponents say having redundancy in the lunar lander development process would help counter any potential setbacks experienced by SpaceX. It’s not certain if Congress will ultimately pass language similar to Cantwell’s amendment requiring NASA to select a second contractor for the landing system, or if members will approve the funding to make it happen. But lawmakers’ backlash to the move was a theme of this week’s hearing.

“With China’s progress and the lack of U.S. government ownership of the lander, it is unacceptable for the fate of the U.S. access to cislunar space to be in the hands of only one company,” said Rep. Robert Aderholt, the top Republican on the subcommittee. “I will have to admit that I have concerns about the process and how it was used to make a single award.”

Aderholt is from Alabama, which hosts many space contractors that stand to benefit from NASA awarding a second company with a contract for the human landing system. 

Nelson avoided wading into the debate, saying the process will have to play out. He did push the committee to fully fund the administration’s request for the lunar lander in order to allow more competition going forward, though.

“You have my commitment on competition,” Nelson said of contract decisions. “But we can’t do it and my commitment doesn't mean anything without you all as partners.”

Nelson emphasized the need to make progress in returning to the lunar surface. He held up a photograph taken by the Chinese government’s rover that landed on Mars last weekend and listed some of China’s goals for space exploration in the coming years—including sending three landers to the moon’s south pole.

China’s aspirations, he told lawmakers, add “a new element as to whether or not we want to get serious and get a lot of activity going in landing humans back on the surface of the moon.”

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