The House of Representatives voted on May 19 to approve legislation to establish an independent commission to investigate the violent insurrection on January 6 at the US Capitol, with 35 Republicans breaking with their party to support the bill. The final vote was 252-175. The Republican defections showcased a significant break with Republican leadership in the chamber and former President Donald Trump, who urged members to vote against the legislation. The bill now moves to the Senate where it faces an uncertain fate as Republican resistance is growing.
The May 19 vote, which came as some Republicans have tried to downplay the violence that occurred on January 6 and align themselves with Trump’s version of reality, was still opposed by most rank-and-file Republicans, after House Republican leaders mobilized against the agreement that had been struck by fellow Republican Congressman John Katko of New York. The margins are an important indicator because just how many House Republicans are willing to buck their party leadership may offer an early signal for how many Republican senators could back the bill. Supporters of the plan will need at least 10 Republicans in the Senate to join all 50 Democrats in the chamber to overcome a 60-vote filibuster and pass the bill. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said he is opposed to the bill but wouldn’t tell reporters if he would actively whip his fellow Republicans against it. Moderate Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine said changes would have to be made to the bill before she could support it.
As the path forward on the January 6 commission bill is growing increasingly rocky in the Senate, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer told CNN “of course” he would pursue a select committee to investigate what happened on January 6 if the bill to create an independent commission fails in the Senate. “We are going to pursue this one way or the other,” Hoyer said. “Any attempt to obfuscate, to hide and dissemble will not succeed.” Ahead of the vote, Minority Whip Steve Scalise’s office sent a letter to members informing them that the leadership was now advocating Republicans vote against the legislation, a reversal from Republican leadership’s previous position to not lobby their members on the measure.
The vote marks an end to a four-month-long stalemate over negotiations, as Republicans and Democrats struggled to agree on the focus and scope of a commission. While Democrats had wanted the commission to focus exclusively on the events leading to January 6, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and others had suggested that the panel also investigate Black Lives Matter protests of last summer, Antifa, and the death of Capitol Police Officer William “Billy” Evans, who was killed outside the Capitol in April. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi tapped Homeland Security Chairman Bennie Thompson, a Mississippi Democrat, to work with John Katko, who was one of 10 Republicans to vote to impeach then-President Donald Trump, to put together this deal. When Thompson and Katko announced last week that they had reached a deal, McCarthy told reporters he had not read through the proposal or signed off on it, foreshadowing that Republicans were not in lockstep on their position on the legislation.
Congressman Bennie Thompson tried to discredit the narrative McCarthy has been peddling, that he was not included in negotiations in the lead up to the deal’s announcement 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. But I guess that’s politics,” Thompson told reporters. After the vote, Thompson expressed optimism that the bill could pass the Senate if the chamber’s Republicans are allowed to vote freely. “Well, I am optimistic that it will pass,” Thompson told CNN’s Erin Burnett on “OutFront.” “People said we would not get more than 20 votes in the House from Republicans. We got 35. I am optimistic on the Senate side. If senators are allowed and not arm twisted to go the other way, we’ll get it.”
The bill lawmakers voted on would create a 10-person commission, with each party getting an equal number of appointments and subpoena power, a key provision that House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy had said he wanted early on in negotiations. The legislation tasks the panel with examining “the facts and circumstances of the January 6th attack on the Capitol as well as the influencing factors that may have provoked the attack on our democracy.” In a statement announcing his opposition to the deal, McCarthy accused House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of failing to negotiate in good faith, argued that a commission would get in the way of investigations already underway and said any commission needed to look at episodes of political violence beyond January 6. “Given the political misdirections that have marred this process, given the now duplicative and potentially counterproductive nature of this effort, and given the Speaker’s shortsighted scope that does not examine interrelated forms of political violence in America, I cannot support this legislation,” McCarthy said. Pelosi responded to McCarthy’s opposition to the deal in a statement by saying, “Democrats made repeated efforts to seek a bipartisan compromise. But Leader McCarthy won’t take yes for an answer.”
All 10 Republicans who voted to impeach Trump earlier this year voted in support of the commission. Even though House Republican leadership encouraged members to vote against the bill, some Republican lawmakers came out strongly in support of the legislation or at least hinted ahead of the vote they were leaning toward getting on board. Over the weekend, Republican Congressmembers Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Fred Upton of Michigan joined Katko in coming out in strong support of the bipartisan deal. Congressman Anthony Gonzalez of Ohio, another of the 10 Republicans who voted to impeach Trump, outlined why he is supporting the bill. “I think it’s necessary just given what actually happened on that day and all the buildup. I think it’s important that you know when the country and the Capitol is attacked that way that we take a full accounting and figure out how to prevent it going forward,” Gonzalez said.