House Democrats are poised to adopt legislation to create a 9/11-style commission to investigate the Capitol attack, in a move that will force Republicans to either embrace an inquiry that could embarrass Donald Trump – or turn a blind eye to a deadly insurrection.
The proposal, endorsed by the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, would establish a 10-member commission evenly split between Democrats and Republicans – and allow the top ranking members from each party to jointly authorize subpoenas, in addition to doing so by majority vote.
Crucially, it would focus narrowly on facts and causes relating to the attack on the Capitol on 6 January by a pro-Trump mob and the interference with the peaceful transition of power. Five people died amid scenes of chaos and violence that shocked the US and the world.
Whether Democrats can seize the moment and push the legislation through Congress remains unclear. The Democratic-led House is likely to swiftly adopt the bill, but it could falter in the 50-50 Senate should Republicans insist on a commission with a mandate to investigate their own political priorities.
The push from Pelosi and senior House Democrats underscores their resolve to investigate Trump and hold him accountable for what they consider to be his role in inciting a deadly insurrection that shook the core of American democracy.
Complicating matters is the fact that the current Congress is far more polarised than it was after the September 11 attacks, with the parties sceptical of each other’s motives. Democrats see some Republicans as complicit in fuelling the 6 January attack by perpetuating lies about a stolen election.
While some Republicans, including Liz Cheney, have backed the idea of a commission, most of the party’s lawmakers say they won’t accept a proposal that could give Democrats the upper hand in determining the course and conclusions of the commission’s work.
The proposal for the commission is modelled closely on the commission Congress established in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks, where recommendations led to reshaping of congressional oversight authority and intelligence gathering.
Negotiations over creating a commission had been stalled for months over disagreements about the panel’s structure and scope, until the top Democrat on the House homeland security committee, Bennie Thompson, and the top Republican, John Katko, announced a bipartisan agreement on Friday.
Pelosi deputised Thompson to lead talks as she felt the homeland security committee was an appropriate venue, and as Katko was one of only three House Republicans to accept Biden’s election win, impeach Trump and punish extremist congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene for endorsing executions of Democrats, according to sources familiar with discussions.
The current draft of the commission proposes an equal split on membership and subpoena power, after Republicans denounced Pelosi’s initial plan that envisioned a committee with seven members appointed by Democrats and four by Republicans.
Liz Cheney, who was removed this week from the House leadership, has backed the idea of a commission. Photograph: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
But the scope of the commission is still tightly focused on 6 January, with Pelosi unwilling to entertain Republicans who want its mandate expanded to cover violence during last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality and racism.
The announcement of the compromise gives House and Senate Republicans a bruising conundrum: embrace the commission, sure to embarrass Trump and spark a backlash that could jeopardise support from his voters ahead of the 2022 midterm elections, or effectively turn a blind eye to the insurrection.
Democratic aides involved in the negotiations were unsure whether Kevin McCarthy, the House minority leader, would extend his support, the sources said, in part because members of the House GOP conference increasingly seek to downplay or even outright deny the violence that took place on 6 January.
Democrats also note that McCarthy has since hired the former White House political director Brian Jack, who was involved in planning the “Stop the Steal” rally that immediately preceded the attack – raising the spectre that either McCarthy or one of his own aides could come under investigation.
Liz Cheney, who was ousted from House Republican leadership this week over her repeated repudiation of Trump, told ABC McCarthy, who spoke to Trump during the attack, should “absolutely” testify before the commission, either voluntarily or via a subpoena.
The Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, remained mum on Friday as to whether he would endorse the commission. However, he has taken issue with its mandate, saying appointees, not House Democrats, should dictate investigation parameters.
Pelosi has suggested to her leadership team in recent weeks that she would be receptive to forming a select committee to investigate the Capitol attack as a fallback, should the bill not receive sufficient support in the Senate, the sources said.
But the speaker’s preference would be to create a commission, they said.
Introduced two days after Trump was acquitted by Senate Republicans in his second impeachment trial, the proposal to create a commission signaled Pelosi’s intent to pursue the former president.
She ran into Republican resistance, with McConnell slamming the idea as “partisan by design” and McCarthy condemning Democrats for trying to move ahead unilaterally.
Even if Congress fails to create a commission, it is still likely to get some answers.
Seven House committees – including judiciary, intelligence and oversight – are conducting investigations into the intelligence and security breakdowns that allowed the mob to breach the Capitol.
In near-identical letters sent in March to 16 agencies across the executive branch and Congress, the committees demanded all documents and communications relevant to the certification of Biden’s election win.
The investigations are similar to House Democrats’ efforts to investigate Trump during his first impeachment inquiry, when Pelosi huddled regularly with six committee chairs before the House impeached the president over the Ukraine scandal.
House and Senate committees have held hearings to investigate the Capitol attack and heard from witnesses including the current and former chiefs of Capitol police and defense and national security officials.
Pelosi has said all information gathered during committee hearings will serve as a key resource for either a commission or a select committee.