WASHINGTON – House Democrats opened the door Tuesday to participating in a special panel's investigation of the deadly attack in Benghazi, Libya, even if they see it as little more than an election-year ploy by Republicans to discredit the Obama administration and motivate GOP voters.
Laying out her party's conditions, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said Republicans must conduct interviews and share information as part of their new inquest into the Obama administration's response to the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. diplomatic past that killed four Americans. She called for the same number of Democrats as Republicans on the panel, a demand the GOP majority immediately rejected.
"If this review is to be fair, it must be truly bipartisan," Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a statement. Later, she told reporters that rank-and-file Democrats are "suspicious of whatever the Republicans are trying to do."
With midterm elections looming closer, Republicans are sharpening their focus on the Benghazi attack that killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. A vote to authorize the probe is expected this week. A senior GOP congressman has issued a subpoena to Secretary of State John Kerry to testify before a separate committee. And the subject could surface in multiple other congressional hearings this week.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, unveiled his plan Tuesday night and said it would entail no time constraint on the select panel, whose establishment is all but a formality in the GOP-controlled House.
Earlier, the congressman chosen by Boehner to head the investigation, Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., said Democrats wouldn't get the same number of seats – and votes – on the committee.
"Look, we're in the majority for a reason. We have more seats in the House," said Gowdy, a second-term congressman and a former prosecutor. He called Pelosi's comments a "good sign" that she is considering Democratic participation.
Republicans want a 7-5 ratio on the committee. A House vote on a resolution to establish the panel is expected on Thursday.
Twenty months since the attack, Republicans have made Benghazi a central plank of their strategy to win control of the Senate in November's elections. Democrats are in a bind. They don't want their presence to provide credibility to what they believe will be a partisan forum for attacks on the president and his top aides. But boycotting the committee would mean losing the ability to counter Republican claims.
In a telephone interview with The Associated Press, Gowdy said his record in Congress shows he is fair and respectful of Democratic committee members. He said he frequently discusses witnesses before scheduling hearings and tries to "have a good working relationship with everyone." He said he was interested in the truth, not politics. "Facts really don't come with a color," he said. "They're not swing state facts."
Republicans say the White House, concerned primarily with protecting President Barack Obama in the final weeks of his re-election campaign, misled the nation by playing down intelligence suggesting Benghazi was a major, al-Qaida-linked terrorist attack. They accuse the administration of stonewalling congressional investigators ever since, pointing specifically to emails written by U.S. officials in the days after the attack but only released last week.
The administration denies any wrongdoing and says officials tried to provide the public with the best information available. Democrats accuse the Republicans of trying to generate a scandal to drum up political support ahead of the midterm elections, and to target former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, the presumed front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016.
Democrats controlling the Senate have shown no interest in launching a similar probe. And up to now, House Democrats have criticized the effort as partisan and unnecessary given several ongoing investigations in Congress, without clearly stating whether they'd participate in or boycott the select committee. White House spokesman Jay Carney has been similarly vague, saying Monday the administration cooperates with "legitimate" congressional oversight.
A select committee isn't bound by jurisdictional issues that can limit investigations by armed services, foreign relations, oversight or other standing committees.
Much of the Democratic concern over process reflects more than a year of tensions in the House Oversight Committee, which has taken the lead among all the congressional investigations into Benghazi.
Its chairman, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., and the State Department are engaged in an ongoing dispute over a subpoena he issued for Kerry to appear before the panel on May 21. A Kerry spokeswoman said Monday the secretary of state has a scheduled trip to Mexico that day and wouldn't appear before Issa's committee. Kerry said Tuesday he'd comply with his responsibilities and that his department has "absolutely nothing to hide."
Meanwhile, Judicial Watch, which last week released a batch of Benghazi-related emails obtained through a lawsuit, said Tuesday the Obama administration was withholding further correspondence pertaining to its early explanation of the attack as a demonstration hijacked by extremists. The administration later retracted that explanation. The watchdog group said the correspondence largely centered on how to respond to members of Congress seeking clarification.