WASHINGTON — Leading congressional Republicans offer multiple justifications for why they oppose an independent commission to investigate the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol by a pro-Trump mob, but there is really one overriding reason: They fear it will hurt their party’s image and hinder their attempts to regain power in next year’s midterm elections.
Senator John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 2 Republican, was unusually candid about his party’s predicament, which he said was “weighing on people’s minds” as they contemplated the prospect of an inquiry into the deadliest attack on the Capitol in two centuries.
Republicans, he said, wondered “whether or not this can be, in the end, a fair process that fully examines the facts around Jan. 6 in an objective way, and doesn’t become a political weapon in the hands of the Democrats.”
Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, as is his style, was much more circumspect. But in a closed-door luncheon this week, Mr. McConnell, the minority leader, warned fellow Republican senators that the proposed panel — the product of a deal between a top Democrat and a top Republican in the House — was not as bipartisan as it appeared. He said he believed that Democrats had partisan motives in moving to set up the commission and would try to extend the investigation into 2022 and the midterm election season, tarnishing Republicans and complicating Mr. McConnell’s drive to return as majority leader.
A day later, Mr. McConnell joined Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the House Republican leader, in flat-out opposing the creation of the 10-member commission. Four months after the deadly assault that targeted them and their institution, the two minority leaders in Congress had united against a bipartisan inquiry that would provide a full accounting for the riot.
Like Mr. McConnell, Mr. McCarthy is determined to put Republicans in the House majority next year and himself in the speakership, and he regards an investigation into what happened on Jan. 6 as an obstacle in his path.
Given that the commission would be likely to delve into the details of Donald J. Trump’s role in stoking the riot with lies about a stolen election — and that of his party in spreading those false claims and seeking to invalidate President Biden’s victory — it stands to reason that any investigation could be damaging to Republicans. The testimony of Mr. McCarthy, who was in contact with Mr. Trump by phone on Jan. 6, would undoubtedly be sought.
Representative Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, the No. 2 House Democrat, archly referred to potential Republican culpability during a House debate on Wednesday, saying the inquiry was needed to get to the bottom of what took place.
“Why did that happen?” he asked. “How did it happen? How can we stop it from happening again? What are the resources that we need? And yes, who was responsible? Some, perhaps, are going to vote against this because that’s what they fear.”
The political dynamic was a stark difference from the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, when lawmakers, despite months of disagreement and negotiation, finally came together around the idea of forming an outside inquiry. The independent commission they created has become the gold standard for such efforts, and was heralded for its work in unraveling the origins of the terrorist attacks and making recommendations to prevent a recurrence. Just three House members opposed the formation of that commission on the final vote in November 2002, and the proposal was approved on a voice vote in the Senate.
But there was no hope for a similar consensus outcome in the House on Wednesday — and most likely none in the Senate in the future — at a time when many Republicans have been working to deflect any close examination of the riot, and some have tried to downplay or deny its crucial facts.
Republican leaders have dug in against the commission even though one of their own members negotiated its details with Democrats, who acceded to their initial demands about its structure. The Jan. 6 proposal was modeled very closely on the Sept. 11 commission. But times have changed, and the Capitol riot has become just another partisan dividing line in a divided capital.
Political risks were a very real consideration in 2002 as well. The Bush administration, and particularly Vice President Dick Cheney, quietly hindered the drive to set up the bipartisan commission even as the White House professed to be fully supportive of the effort. President George W. Bush and members of his administration knew that the disclosure of intelligence lapses leading up to Sept. 11 and other aspects of the investigation could be severely damaging, and they were in no rush to back an inquiry that could haunt the president’s re-election in 2004. But the pressure built to the point where Congress was finally able to proceed.
Many of the objections being raised now were also aired during the debate surrounding the Sept. 11 commission. Mr. McConnell and others have said that congressional committee inquiries can get the job done while the Justice Department is deep into its own criminal investigations.
“It’s not at all clear what new facts or additional investigation yet another commission could lay on top of the existing efforts by law enforcement and Congress,” Mr. McConnell said.
But to Democrats and others supporting the commission, that is the point: A bipartisan inquiry could find facts and developments that other, more narrowly focused investigations might miss, and then be able to deliver a more comprehensive picture of what happened on Jan. 6. The Sept. 11 commission went to work after numerous congressional inquiries, including an in-depth, joint House and Senate Intelligence Committee investigation, and there was still plenty of room for the panel to expand on that and other work.
Republicans have also raised concerns that the inquiry could complicate the criminal prosecution of those being charged in the assault — a common critique of congressional investigations that parallel criminal inquiries. And they objected that Democrats would appoint the chair of the panel and control the hiring of staff members, suggesting that even with Republicans able to appoint half of the commission members, Democrats would really be in control.
Representative John Katko of New York, the top Republican on the Homeland Security Committee, who negotiated the agreement with Representative Bennie Thompson, Democrat of Mississippi and the chairman of the committee, sought to dispel those concerns and others, calling them unwarranted.
“The commission creates the rules as a team,” Mr. Katko said. He also dismissed complaints from Republicans that the scope of the panel was too narrow given civil unrest around the nation, including by left-leaning activists, saying there was no reason the commission could not examine such episodes.
“It will be up to the commission to decide how far they want to go,” he said.
Such assurances are unlikely to move Mr. McConnell and Mr. McCarthy, who have other reasons for opposing the commission. They believe that Democrats have a vested interest in calling attention to the horrors of Jan. 6, and saw the efforts by Speaker Nancy Pelosi to maintain fencing around the Capitol and keep National Guard troops present as ways to remind Americans of the assault by pro-Trump forces. Given all of that, it is not clear whether the proposal can draw the 10 Republicans whose votes would be needed to advance the bill creating the inquiry past a filibuster in the Senate.
But 35 Republicans in the House broke from the leadership and supported the commission. They said it was time for others in their party to do the same in the pursuit of truth.
“We need the answers, not political rhetoric,” said Representative Fred Upton of Michigan, one of the 35. “That’s what this bipartisan commission can provide for all of us, for our country. Let the truth shine in.”