Capitol Riot Commission's Future Looks Bleak as Republicans, Democrats Disagree on Scope

More than 100 days after a violent siege at the U.S. Capitol that was meant to disrupt the certification of President Joe Biden's election, Congress continues to mull whether it will create a 9/11 Commission-style independent body to study what happened on January 6.

Experts and government watchdogs say that a 1/6 Commission is necessary to set a definitive record and counter disinformation about the Capitol insurrection, but it could be a tall hurdle to get enough Republicans on board with creating one.

"The further we've gotten from it, the more both sides have moved into their own narratives on what 1/6 was about," Laurel Harbridge-Yong, a political science professor at Northwestern University whose research focuses on partisan conflict, told Newsweek. "The way many Democrats see the correct findings of a commission would be painting the Republican Party in a negative light. I don't think the Republican Party has any interest in doing that."

About half of Republicans think the attack on the Capitol was a "mostly peaceful" protest or blame left-wing activists who wanted to make Donald Trump look bad, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll released this month.

"One of the things we've been seeing is there's already so much misinformation about what happened—an effort to rewrite history," Noah Bookbinder, executive director of the non-partisan Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), told Newsweek. "There are lots of false versions of what happened."

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat who has championed the idea of a 1/6 Commission, told reporters Thursday that she remains "optimistic" about the effort. She's given in to two items on Republicans' wishlist—agreeing to an even partisan split among members and equal subpoena power. The remaining issue to hammer out is the scope, she said. Democrats want the probe to focus solely on January 6, while some Republican leaders are pushing for it to be broadened to protests across the country over the past year that included looting and property damage.

"It's a process—what is your objection? How can we find common ground?" Pelosi said. "[The scope] is to find the truth of what happened on January 6, when an insurrection descended upon the Capitol ... our purpose is to find the truth on that."

U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, meanwhile, told reporters at the Capitol this week that he hasn't discussed the issue directly with Pelosi, but confirmed he wants the commission to look beyond the violent Capitol riots that forced members and then-Vice President Mike Pence to be whisked to safety.

"The scope of it needs to deal with a little bit broader than just January 6—we've also had a number of violent disturbances around the country in the last year," the Kentucky Republican said. "If [Pelosi] were willing to put that forward, I think it would enjoy broad bipartisan support."

Neither side appears interested in budging on scope at this point, and the clock is ticking.

"The more time goes by, the more difficult it is to uncover evidence," Sarah Turberville, director of the Constitution Project at the non-partisan Project on Government Oversight (POGO), told Newsweek. "It applies to any investigation."

If Congress doesn't muster the support to pass legislation, Biden could create an independent commission through executive order, as President Lyndon B. Johnson created the Warren Commission to review the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

The White House didn't respond to multiple requests from Newsweek for comment on whether Biden is entertaining the idea or would be open to it. The Biden administration has previously voiced support for Congress to create an independent commission.

Bookbinder said that a presidential commission would be the "next best thing" if Congress can't come to an agreement. "It's gonna be important to establish a definitive and credible version of what happened," he said. "A bipartisan commission could really do that—we need it."

Before people stormed the Capitol, then-President Trump, who continues to claim without evidence that the 2020 presidential election was "stolen" from him, spoke to a rally of his supporters and directed them to march to the Capitol, which has been closed to the public because of the coronavirus pandemic. At the Capitol, where several Trump allies in the House and Senate were planning to object to the election's certification, the mob clashed and overwhelmed law enforcement.

More than 400 people have been arrested in the three months since, and law enforcement continues to seek out more suspects.

Meanwhile, lawmakers have held multiple hearings with the now-ousted Capitol law enforcement heads to try to gather more information, as well as an inspector general who oversees Capitol security.

But Turberville said she thinks an independent commission could pull all of those pieces together.

"An independent commission is really the only way that you can figure out what the connections are between all these disparate parts," she said.

Tuberville said the commission could take a more comprehensive look at the failure to protect the Capitol, as well as questions about the funding behind domestic extremist networks and disinformation campaigns.

The 9/11 Commission's 585-page report was released nearly three years after the terrorist attacks that brought down the World Trade Center's twin towers. The commission interviewed hundreds of people and pored over sensitive documents to reach a complete picture of what happened. It found several lapses in national security and traced the funding behind the terrorists who led the attack.

"When you look back to 9/11, there was some degree of blame there, but they weren't nearly as partisan in nature," Harbridge-Yong said.

When the House impeached Trump for a second time, after the insurrection, 10 Republicans voted with Democrats. When the impeachment reached the Senate, seven Republicans voted with Democrats to convict. If those votes carried over to this issue, they still wouldn't be enough to get the 60 votes needed in the upper chamber to create a commission.

Capitol riot
Pro-Trump supporters storm the U.S. Capitol following a rally with President Donald Trump on January 6, 2021 in Washington, DC. Trump supporters gathered in the nation's capital today to protest the ratification of President-elect Joe Biden's Electoral College victory over President Trump in the 2020 election. Samuel Corum/Getty Images