Senate Republicans block bill to create commission to probe pro-Trump Capitol insurrection

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U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) speaks to reporters after the Senate Republican lunch on Capitol Hill in Washington, May 18, 2021.

Evelyn Hockstein | Reuters

Senate Republicans on Friday blocked a bill that would create an independent commission to investigate the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, as Democrats and the GOP diverge over how best to probe the attack on the legislature and prevent another assault on the democratic process.

In a 54-35 vote, the measure failed to hit the threshold needed to overcome a filibuster as nearly all GOP senators opposed it. Six Republicans voted to advance the proposal: Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Rob Portman of Ohio, Mitt Romney of Utah and Ben Sasse of Nebraska. All of those senators but Portman voted in February to find former President Donald Trump guilty of inciting an insurrection.

The vote likely snuffs out the creation of a panel Democrats and some Republicans have called vital to understanding what led to the violent attempt to disrupt the transfer of power to President Joe Biden. GOP leaders have contended the commission could duplicate existing efforts by the Justice Department and congressional committees to investigate the pro-Trump mob attack, which led to five deaths, including that of Capitol Police officer Brian Sicknick.

Sicknick’s mother met with a handful of Republican senators on Thursday and pushed them to support the commission.

Republicans have tried to divert attention from the insurrection — which Trump’s 2020 election conspiracy theories helped to fuel — as they look to regain control of Congress in next year’s midterms. Top GOP lawmakers, particularly in the House, have aimed to tamp down criticism of Trump, who remains the most popular figure in the Republican Party.

“Out of fear or fealty to Donald Trump, the Republican minority just prevented the American people from getting the full truth about Jan. 6,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said after the vote.

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The Democratic-held House passed the bipartisan legislation in a 252-175 vote earlier this month. Thirty-five Republicans supported it, while 175 GOP representatives voted against it. House Republican leaders urged opposition to it after Rep. John Katko, R-N.Y., negotiated the deal with Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss.

The bill failed to win the Republican votes needed to advance in the evenly split Senate after Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., urged his caucus to oppose it.

“I’ll continue to support the real, serious work of our criminal justice system and our own Senate committees,” McConnell said Thursday ahead the vote. “And I’ll continue to urge my colleagues to oppose this extraneous layer when the time comes for the Senate to vote.”

The bill would set up a 10-person commission to investigate the factors that led to the insurrection. Democratic and Republican leaders would each appoint half of the members, who could not be current government officials.

The panel, which would have subpoena power, would prepare a report on its probe by the end of the year.

In pushing senators to support the commission bill on Thursday, Schumer said the country needed to root out belief in Trump’s unfounded claims that widespread fraud led to his defeat in November. He called the lies a “cancer” in the GOP.

“We have to investigate, expose, and report on the truth,” he said. “We need to establish a trusted record of what really transpired on January the 6th and the events that preceded it. That’s what this commission is designed to do, in a bipartisan, straight-down-the-middle, manner.”

At least one top Senate Republican has suggested the panel would distract from the party’s midterm election messaging. Senate Minority Whip John Thune, R-S.D., said earlier this month that “anything that gets us rehashing the 2020 election I think is a day lost on being able to draw contrast between us and the Democrats’ very radical left-wing agenda.”

Sen. Joe Manchin, the most conservative Democrat in the Senate, repeatedly urged Republicans to vote to set up the commission. However, he said he would still not join with most of his Democratic colleagues in moving to scrap the filibuster, which would allow the party to pass the legislation on its own.

Biden, whose assumption of the presidency the pro-Trump mob tried to disrupt, scoffed Thursday at the prospect of senators voting against setting up the commission.

“I can’t imagine anyone voting against the establishment of a commission on the greatest assault since the Civil War on the Capitol,” he said.

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