Senate Republicans on Friday blocked the creation of a bipartisan panel to study the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol in a show of party loyalty to former president Donald Trump, aiming to shift the political focus away from the violent insurrection by his GOP supporters.
Instead, it’s now likely that questions about who should bear responsibility for the attack will continue to be filtered through a partisan lens, rather than be addressed by an independent panel modelled after the commission that investigated the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.
The Senate vote was 54-35 — short of the 60 votes needed to consider a House-passed bill that would have formed a 10-member commission evenly split between the two parties.
It came a day after emotional appeals from police who fought with the rioters, the family of an officer who died afterward and lawmakers in both parties who fled Capitol chambers as the rioters broke in.
Six Republicans voted with Democrats to move forward. Eleven senators — nine Republicans and two Democrats — missed the vote, an unusually high number of absentees for one of the highest-profile votes of the year. Some said they had scheduling conflicts.
It was the first successful use of a Senate filibuster in the Biden presidency and revived talk of doing away with the time-honoured procedure typically used to kill major legislation.
Moving forward legislation to create a commission looking into the riot required 60 votes, rather than a simple majority in the 100-member Senate. With the Senate evenly split 50-50, Democrats needed the support of 10 Republicans.
Though the Jan. 6 commission bill passed the House earlier this month with the support of almost three-dozen Republicans, GOP senators said they believe the commission would eventually be used against them politically. And Trump, who still has a firm hold on the party, has called it a “Democrat trap.”
‘Trying to sweep the horrors of that day under the rug’
Speaking to his Republican colleagues, Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said after the vote that they were “trying to sweep the horrors of that day under the rug” out of loyalty to Trump.
He left open the possibility of another vote in the future on establishing a bipartisan commission, declaring, “The events of Jan. 6 will be investigated.”
The vote was emblematic of the profound mistrust between the two parties since the siege, especially among Republicans, as some in the party have downplayed the violence and defended the rioters who supported Trump and his false insistence that the election was stolen from him.
Four people died in the riot, and a police officer collapsed and died afterward of what authorities said were natural causes. Two police officers took their own lives in the days after the riots.
While initially saying he was open to the idea of the commission, which would be modelled after an investigation of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell turned firmly against it in recent days. He has said he believes the panel’s investigation would be partisan despite the even split among party members.
McConnell, who once said Trump was responsible for provoking the mob attack on the Capitol, said of Democrats: “They’d like to continue to litigate the former president, into the future.”
‘We just can’t pretend that nothing bad happened’
Still, six in McConnell’s caucus defied him, arguing that an independent look is needed.
A seventh, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, said he missed the vote because of a family commitment but would have also voted to move forward with the legislation.
Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski said Thursday evening that she needs to know more about what happened that day and why.
“Truth is hard stuff, but we’ve got a responsibility to it,” she told reporters Thursday evening. “We just can’t pretend that nothing bad happened, or that people just got too excitable. Something bad happened. And it’s important to lay that out.”
Of her colleagues opposing the commission, Murkowski said some are concerned that “we don’t want to rock the boat.”
Frustration from police who responded
The Republicans’ political arguments over the violent siege — which is still raw for many in the Capitol, almost five months later — have frustrated not only Democrats but also those who fought off the rioters.
Michael Fanone, a Metropolitan Police Department officer who responded to the attack, said between meetings with Republican senators that a commission is “necessary for us to heal as a nation from the trauma that we all experienced that day.”
Fanone has described being dragged down the Capitol steps by rioters who shocked him with a stun gun and beat him.
Sandra Garza, the partner of Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick, who collapsed and died after battling rioters, said of the Republican senators: “You know they are here today and with their families and comfortable because of the actions of law enforcement that day.”
“So I don’t understand why they would resist getting to the bottom of what happened that day and fully understanding how to prevent it. Just boggles my mind.”
Video of the rioting shows two men spraying Sicknick and another officer with a chemical, but the Washington medical examiner said he suffered a stroke and died from natural causes.
Garza attended the meetings with Sicknick’s mother, Gladys Sicknick. In a statement Wednesday, Mrs. Sicknick suggested the opponents of the commission, “visit my son’s grave in Arlington National Cemetery and, while there, think about what their hurtful decisions will do to those officers who will be there for them going forward.”
Dozens of other police officers were injured as the rioters pushed past them, breaking through windows and doors and hunting for lawmakers. The protesters constructed a mock gallows in front of the Capitol and called for the hanging of Vice-President Mike Pence, who was overseeing the certification of the presidential vote.
Four protesters died, including a woman who was shot and killed by police as she tried to break into the House chamber with lawmakers still inside.
Many Democrats are warning that if Republicans are willing to use the filibuster to stop an arguably popular measure, it shows the limits of trying to broker compromises, particularly on bills related to election reforms or other aspects of the Democrats’ agenda.
For now, though, Democrats don’t have the votes to change the rule. West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin and Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, both moderate Democrats, have said they want to preserve the filibuster.
Biden, asked about the commission at a stop in Cleveland, said Thursday, “I can’t imagine anyone voting against” it.