Reps. Trey Gowdy and Elijah E. Cummings say they don't want the Select Committee on Benghazi to be driven by partisanship, and both have made overtures over the past four months to prove they mean it.
But no matter how many times the South Carolina Republican and Maryland Democrat huddle in the Speaker's Lobby and pledge to treat the committee's mission with dignity, the chairman and ranking member probably won't be able to drown out the partisan voices on sidelines just 48 days from the midterm elections.
On the eve of the committee's first public hearing, set for Wednesday morning, Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and progressives, on Capitol Hill and off, were already drawing battle lines. American Bridge, a Democratic "super PAC," had partnered with a pro-Hillary Clinton group called "Correct the Record" to launch the "Benghazi Research Center," an online rapid-response hub devoted entirely to discrediting the seven Republicans on the panel and their alleged "partisan witch hunt."
Conservatives, meanwhile, were uniting behind the Benghazi Accountability Coalition, an organization encouraging the select committee to probe the "official failures," "decision to deny military support to Americans under assault" and the "administration's campaign of duplicity."
The Democratic National Committee as recently as last week re-sounded an alarm bell from earlier this year to let the public know that a Republican member of the Benghazi committee — this time Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, R-Ga. — headlined a fundraiser billed as an "update on the Benghazi investigation."
And the "Stop Hillary PAC" was warning that the public hearing was an early opportunity for Clinton backers to "stonewall" the "truth" about what happened in Benghazi in order to lay the groundwork for the former secretary of State's potential 2016 presidential bid.
The committee's own origin story is rooted in politics. In the spring, House Republican leaders decided that the Democratic administration had failed to work with Congress to address concerns about how the attacks transpired and decided to appoint a special panel to take over the investigation. Democrats were so incensed with how Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., had handled the matter in the Oversight and Government Reform Committee that they at first threatened to boycott the select committee.
It didn't make Democrats feel any better that Republicans insisted on an unfavorable ratio of majority-to-minority panel members.
Issa told CQ Roll Call on Tuesday afternoon he thought Gowdy would lead the committee with professionalism, but said it was idealistic to think it could be divorced from politics.
"Mr. Cummings and the staff from the oversight committee ... is highly partisan," Issa said. "They have said they have repeatedly wanted to shut this down at every juncture, and they purport that it's a phony scandal. ... That makes it very hard for it to be nonpartisan."
"It's unfortunate that Chairman Issa feels that way, but it is simply not true," a Democratic aide with the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, of which Cummings is the ranking member, rebutted in a statement. "As many House Republicans know, Rep. Cummings always tries to be as bipartisan as possible, and he is hopeful he will find a willing partner in Chairman Gowdy."
Gowdy and Cummings, for all their talk about wanting to facilitate a fair, balanced and courteous process, have to contend not only with the committee's politically loaded history but also with the subsequent sound and fury from their own colleagues and allies.
On Tuesday morning, Cummings held a news conference to unveil a sprawling interactive website called "Benghazi on the Record." He and the four other Democrats on the committee said they hoped the site would provide lawmakers, staffers and the American people with the resources they need to educate themselves about the current status of the investigation and see that almost every question about what transpired that fateful night has already been answered.
"If you look at the website, it has almost no commentary. It’s actual statements and findings," Cummings said in a follow-up phone interview on Tuesday, adding that he wanted the website to be a "just the facts ma'am" clearinghouse that could help the panel avoid duplicative work.
But the underlying assumption in touting such a resource is that Republicans are harping on an investigation many Democrats think should just be closed. It was enough to ruffle the feathers of the Benghazi committee communications director, Jamal Ware, who put out a statement before the news conference had even wrapped.
“As Chairman Gowdy has said, he is willing to risk answering the same question twice rather than risk it not be answered at all," he wrote. "Since all documents responsive to Congressional inquiries into the Benghazi terrorist attack have not been produced, it is fair to say that not all questions have been asked and answered.
“Chairman Gowdy sincerely hopes that all sides will not prejudge the outcome of the investigation — before even the Committee’s first hearing, which is on a topic suggested by the Democrats — and instead allow a constructive and thorough investigatory process that produces a final report on Benghazi that is beyond any doubt," Ware continued.
Speaking with CQ Roll Call on Tuesday, Cummings acknowledged that it wasn't easy to forge ahead given the political realities on either side.
"I don't know exactly what kind of pressure he's under," Cummings said of Gowdy, "but I can tell you that I don't feel pressure from Democrats. I think they trust that we're going to go out there as defenders of the truth."
Just a few days earlier, on the anniversary of the 2012 attacks, Gowdy, a former prosecutor, also sought to rise about the fray, issuing the following statement: "It is for [the victims] that we must establish all the facts of what happened in Benghazi, beyond any reasonable doubt. And it is for the American people, and those hwo serve our nations overseas — to restore their faith and confidence — that the Committee will establish the facts in a fair and impartial manner."
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