WASHINGTON – House Democrats said Friday that before deciding whether to participate in a new investigation on the deadly attack on the U.S. diplomatic outpost at Benghazi, Libya, they want assurances from Speaker John Boehner that the Republican-run probe will be bipartisan and not a political spectacle.
Party leaders huddled with rank and file in a closed-door session to decide whether to take part in the eighth investigation of the Sept. 11, 2012 assault, or whether they should boycott the proceedings. Democrats are split over their involvement in the work of the select committee, which will have a 7-5 Republican edge in membership.
"If there is going to be a true bipartisan inquiry, we'll participate," Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., told reporters following the meeting. "If it's engineered to be a Republican campaign strategy, it's much harder for us to participate."
Israel said that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., had made several calls to Boehner on Thursday that went unanswered. Staff level negotiations have continued.
Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., said the sentiment in the caucus was shifting away from a boycott in favor of participating, but Democrats wanted to know the "rules of engagement" first. They are concerned that their participation would grant legitimacy to what they believe will be a partisan forum. But they also worry that if they avoid it, they won't have the chance to counter GOP claims and defend potential witnesses.
Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., floated the idea of token participation with just one Democrat, but Connolly said he didn't support that step.
A member of the Democratic leadership, Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, expressed his concerns about participating, saying, "if you're going to have a hanging don't ask me to bring the noose."
Four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens, were killed when militants stormed the diplomatic outpost. Republicans, who insist the Obama administration hasn't come clean on what happened, voted Thursday to create the special committee.
The panel's investigation means high-profile hearings in the months leading up to the elections, with Republicans grilling current and former Obama administration officials. Certain to be called to testify is former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, the Democrats' potential 2016 presidential candidate.
"This doesn't need to be, shouldn't be and will not be a partisan process," Boehner said in a speech on the House floor, promising pursuit of the truth.
Democrats have their doubts.
"This is 100 percent pure politics," Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, chair of the Democratic National Committee, said Friday. She charged that Republicans are exploiting the families of the four victims of the Benghazi attack by keeping the issue alive.
Wasserman Schultz accused Republicans of doing all in their power "to keep this in the news," saying the GOP is returning its focus to Benghazi now because its staunch opposition to the Affordable Care Act "has lost its luster."
Boehner's legislation creates the special committee through the end of the year. It will have to be reapproved when a new Congress begins in January or go out of existence. The select committee has no explicit financial constraints. The speaker was expected to announce the Republican members on Friday.
House Democrats have issued several demands if they are to participate in the select committee. Rebuffed on their request for an equal split in membership, Democrats are seeking guarantees they'll have equal access to documents, say on subpoenas and the right to question witnesses.
In the 20 months since the attack, multiple independent, bipartisan and GOP-led probes already have faulted the State Department for inadequate security at the outpost, leading to four demotions. No attacker has yet been brought to justice.
Republicans say they're unsatisfied with explanations so far, and they have leveled a range of accusations against President Barack Obama, Clinton and other senior administration officials. Chief among them is that the administration misled the American people about the nature of the attack during a presidential election campaign and stonewalled congressional investigators.
Benghazi has produced 13 public hearings, the release of 25,000 pages of documents and 50 separate briefings. The select committee won't be the only inquiry, as other GOP-led congressional panels continue their investigations, including a House Oversight probe which just last week took the extraordinary step of subpoenaing a Cabinet member, Secretary of State John Kerry. Kerry hasn't said when he might testify.
Democrats deride the effort as a conservative campaign designed to energize Republican voters in typically low-turnout midterm elections.
Earlier this week, the National Republican Congressional Committee sent an email vowing that "no one will get away" from the committee's investigation and asking people for donations.
Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., the former prosecutor tapped by Boehner to head the panel, has signaled he would re-examine the entirety of the Benghazi attack, including questions Democrats and some senior Republicans consider settled.
Wasserman Schultz's remarks were made in an interview Friday on CNN.