With Fox News and radio talk-show hosts urging Republicans to make Benghazi a central issue in Washington, U.S. House Speaker John Boehner cautioned his colleagues to take a different approach.
After agreeing to create a select committee to investigate the 2012 attacks in Libya, Boehner warned Republican lawmakers that grandstanding on the issue risked provoking a voter backlash, according to two people at a private meeting yesterday attended by the speaker. They described the discussion on condition of anonymity.
“It’s a very two-edged sword,” said Representative Tom Cole, an Oklahoma Republican who also was at the meeting and worked for the party’s House campaign committee before winning his congressional seat in 2002.
Boehner’s advice reflects concern among Republicans that in probing Benghazi, the peril at the polls is at least as strong as the chance for political gain. That could prove especially so if it appears the party is talking about the deaths of four Americans in the attacks mainly as a way to win votes.
One measure of the uncertainty in Republican ranks: Benghazi-related advertisements have been run on behalf of just three candidates since the beginning of last year, all of them in Republican primaries, according to New York-based Kantar Media’s CMAG, which tracks advertising.
Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican up for re-election this year, aired an ad last month that included footage of him saying President Barack Obama “misled the nation” on Benghazi. Senator John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, mentioned Benghazi in two spots en route to a March primary win.
Benghazi ads accounted for 0.5 percent of the 227,119 overall campaign spots tracked by CMAG.
Democrats are pushing back. They say the select committee is a political exercise aimed in part at weakening Hillary Clinton, the secretary of state at the time of the attacks and a potential Democratic presidential candidate in 2016.
Democratic leaders are weighing boycotting the panel. Some, including the head of the House Democratic campaign arm, Representative Steve Israel of New York, deride the committee as a stunt and say they want no part of it. Others, including Representative Henry Waxman of California, say Democrats need to be part of the proceedings to effectively fight back.
Congress started investigating the Benghazi attacks less than a month after they occurred on Sept. 11, 2012, spotlighting the Obama administration’s erroneous initial claim that the violence stemmed from “spontaneously inspired” demonstrations over an anti-Islamic video.
Officials later said that attackers with links to terrorist groups stormed a diplomatic compound and set fire to it. That attack and one hours later at a CIA annex killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others.
Republicans say that -- with the 2012 presidential vote less than two months away -- the administration may have intentionally misled the public about the origins of the attacks so as not to detract from Obama’s record on combating terrorism. Various officials, including former Central Intelligence Agency Deputy Director Michael Morell, have repeatedly denied politics played a role in their first analysis of the attacks.
Even as Republicans remain skeptical of such denials, those on the campaign trail are treading lightly.
Representative Shelley Moore Capito, a West Virginia Republican seeking her state’s open Senate seat, said that while she gets questions about the status of the investigation, that doesn’t mean she’s going to spend money making a Benghazi pitch to independent voters.
“No,” she said, when asked if she would put Benghazi in ads. “The main focus of my campaign will be about jobs” and what she considers Obama’s poor performance on the economy.
House Republicans have had four separate panels looking into the attacks, investigations that will be combined under the new committee that the chamber is scheduled to vote on forming today.
Boehner had resisted establishing a select panel for more than a year, arguing that the existing House committees investigating Benghazi were doing a good job and should retain jurisdiction over the inquiry.
That changed last week when an e-mail released as part of a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by an outside group showed Obama Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes discussing talking points on Benghazi. Congressional committees that had received thousands of pages of documents said they hadn’t seen that one before.
The e-mail was the tipping point for Boehner. “A line was crossed,” he told reporters yesterday.
The Ohio Republican decided a select committee was needed and he chose South Carolina Republican Representative Trey Gowdy, a former prosecutor known for his aggressive style, to lead it.
“This is all about getting to the truth,” Boehner said. “This is not gonna be a sideshow, this is not gonna be a circus. This is a serious investigation.”
Boehner met with Gowdy yesterday. An aide declined to comment on their discussions.
Helping set the investigation’s tone will be who Boehner picks to join Gowdy as the panel’s seven Republican members. His selections may be announced before week’s end.
He and his leadership team are looking for lawmakers seen as judicious, with the lineup possibly including other former prosecutors, according to a leadership aide who asked for anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. Lawmakers with a background in foreign affairs and those who still have active military-duty status also will get consideration, the aide said.
“I think it needs to be members who are serious,” said Representative Devin Nunes, a California Republican and Boehner ally who said he hasn’t put his own name forward.
“It’s not about creating YouTube moments, it’s about honoring the fact that four people died for their country,” said Representative Adam Kinzinger, an Illinois Republican who said he hadn’t volunteered but wouldn’t say no if asked.
House Democratic leaders, if they decide against boycotting the committee, will select their party’s five members.
With Republicans expected to retain their House majority in November’s midterm elections, party officials have signaled that they will seek to keep Benghazi an issue if Clinton emerges as the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee.
The panel probably won’t release its report until at least next year, Texas Republican Mike Conaway said in an interview. “I’d be stunned” if it wraps up this year, he said.
Clinton recognizes that political reality.
“Of course there are lot of reasons why, despite all of the hearings, all of the information that’s been provided, some choose not to be satisfied and choose to continue to move forward,” Clinton told ABC News in an interview. “That’s their choice and I do not believe that there is any reason for it to continue in this way, but they get to call the shots in the Congress.”
A Fox News poll released in April found that 60 percent of respondents wanted Congress to continue investigating Benghazi, and 55 percent said Clinton bore some or all of the blame for the attacks. Both numbers were down from previous Fox surveys.
The next few months should give both parties insight into how Benghazi is playing as an issue with voters outside the Republican base.
“It’s clear that there are implications for 2016,” said Representative Steve Stivers, an Ohio Republican. “It’s too early to tell for 2014.”
The reasons for Republicans to push ahead, Stivers said yesterday, are a desire to show leadership in making sure similar attacks don’t claim more U.S. lives and that “a lot of people in our base get worked up because four people died.”
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