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Democrats Debate How to Handle GOP Panel Set to Investigate Investigators

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Updated: | Originally published:

One of Republicans’ first orders of business with a newly-minted House majority: investigate the investigators. The House voted along party lines this week to establish a select committee set up to probe the “weaponization” of federal law enforcement to unfairly target conservatives.

Democrats have collectively derided the move as an exploitative attempt to amplify conspiracy theories and score political points. The panel will enjoy broad subpoena power that will grant it access to highly classified material, potentially giving GOP legislators the ability to disclose sensitive information to the public.

But Democrats are not necessarily on the same page about how to respond.

While a growing number of party leaders want to place some of their most gifted Democratic members on the controversial committee—saying they shouldn’t repeat the strategic blunder that Speaker Kevin McCarthy made as minority leader two years ago when he pulled Republicans from the Jan. 6 Committee—the man who has the ultimate say isn’t quite there yet.

“We’re still evaluating the dynamics as it relates to the select committee on insurrection protection,” House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries told reporters on Thursday, referring to the Select Committee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government.

Republicans haven’t yet named any members to the committee, and the resolution the House passed establishing the panel automatically places on it the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Republican Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, and the committee’s ranking member, Democratic Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York. Crucially, though, it also empowers the Speaker to select the rest of the members. That means McCarthy could reject any of Jeffries’ recommendations from the minority party, though he suggested to reporters on Thursday that that wouldn’t happen, saying “the other side will get to name their members on the committee.”

But Jeffries’ reluctance to commit to putting forward Democrats on the panel runs in contrast to what members of his own caucus are saying about how they should handle the new subcommittee, which has the potential to draw outsized attention compared to other committees in the coming months, particularly from conservative media outlets and figures.

“It was an unprecedented mistake for MAGA Republicans to create this ‘investigative subcommittee’ to interfere with ongoing criminal investigations,” Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a Democrat from California who served on the Jan. 6 Committee, tells TIME. “However, I think it would be a mistake for Democrats to decline our seats on the panel. Democrats should be there to call out if something is going wrong.”

Nadler’s office says that the party will not sit this one out. “Democrats will be on the committee,” Daniel Rubin, Nadler’s communications director, tells TIME. “Democrats do not plan to boycott the committee.”

According to multiple sources familiar with the matter, Democratic desire to participate on the controversial panel stems to a large extent from a lesson they learned from none other than McCarthy.

As Minority Leader in 2021, McCarthy yanked all of Republican recommendations from the Jan. 6 Committee after then Speaker Nancy Pelosi rejected two of them because they were staunch Trump allies and who voted against certifying Joe Biden’s victory that day.

Once the Jan. 6 hearings unfolded last summer and were way more successful than most of Washington anticipated, McCarthy’s maneuver was seen as a major strategic stumble, for it forfeited the GOP’s opportunity to have any pro-Trump lawmakers on the panel. Instead, the hearings became arguably among the most effective in congressional history. More than 20 million Americans tuned in to the primetime sessions as a unified committee was able to present its findings.

One Senior Democratic Congressional aide, who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly, said there were discussions inside the party for a “both-ends-of-Pennsylvania-Avenue approach” to counter what they claim will be bad faith arguments to taint the American public’s view of the Biden administration going into the next election season.

“We need to find our top surrogates and put them on these committees in surging a full-court coordinated effort with the White House and not let the Republicans run the media narrative on any platform,” the official tells TIME, adding that it was “super smart” of Pelosi to include lawmakers on the Jan. 6 Committee such as Democratic Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland, and Republican Reps. Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Adam Kinzinger of Illinois. “These were dynamic, press-savvy members and could do media around this,” the aide adds. “I think we need to emulate that here as well.”

House Democratic Caucus Chair Pete Aguilar said at a press conference on Tuesday that Democrats should serve on the committees to ensure that Republicans “don’t have an opportunity, behind closed doors, to shape and to add to these conspiracy theories.”

Jordan, who will chair the weaponization subcommittee, did not respond to a request for comment.

He is coming at the issue from a unique vantage point. McCarthy pulled Republicans from the Jan. 6 Committee in July 2021 after Pelosi rejected two of his five initial picks: Jordan and Rep. Jim Banks of Indiana, both of whom were staunch allies of former President Donald Trump and voted on Jan. 6, 2021 against certifying President Biden’s election victory.

Pelosi, in turn, appointed two Republicans of her own choosing—Cheney and Kinzinger—who were committed alongside Democrats to the mission of uncovering what happened in the days and weeks leading up to the Capitol attack. That meant there were no detractors on the panel who might have tried to sabotage its work.

Rather, the committee enjoyed a sense of cohesion that led to the hearings being as compelling as they were, according to Norman Ornstein, a Congressional expert at the American Enterprise Institute. It led to a committee that was “completely dedicated to its task, and determined to make it work,” he told TIME last July. “And that’s not always the case. In fact, it’s unusual.”

McCarthy’s office did not respond to a request for comment on whether he plans to accept Democratic recommendations for minority members on the select committee.

Democrats, to be sure, have been careful not to draw equivalencies between the Jan. 6 committee and the newly-formed Republican-generated subcommittee.

“Jim Jordan and Kevin McCarthy claim to be investigating the weaponization of the federal government when, in fact, this new select subcommittee is the weapon itself,” Nadler said in a statement on Tuesday. “It is specifically designed to inject extremist politics into our justice system and shield the MAGA movement from the legal consequences of their actions.”

Be that as it may, many Democrats now say that they don’t want to let Republicans run a select committee without any internal pushback. In other words, they don’t want to see Jeffries repeat the same mistake of McCarthy.

But McCarthy is in the driver’s seat as Speaker, meaning he could block certain Democrats from getting a seat on a committee that may ultimately be more about the spectacle than anything else.

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