Democrats' dilemma: Do they boycott Benghazi panel, or not?

Republicans in the House approved a special investigative panel into the Benghazi affair Thursday night. Democrats will decide Friday morning whether they will participate.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
From left: Republican leaders Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, House majority whip Kevin McCarthy of California, Rep. Erik Paulsen of Minnesota, and House Speaker John Boehner face reporters after a Republican strategy meeting at the Capitol in Washington, May 7. Boehner has created a special select committee investigating the 2012 attack on the US diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya, that killed the ambassador and three other Americans.

The House approved the creation of a special Benghazi investigative panel Thursday on a largely party-line vote, leaving Democrats with a big question: To boycott? Or not to boycott?

House Democrats will meet Friday morning to decide. Boycotting would be an unusual, though not unprecedented, move. But don't be surprised if they do boycott, experts say. Doing so would have little downside and could possibly even gain Democrats an upward blip with their base ahead of the midterm elections.

“For most Americans, Benghazi has long been in the rearview mirror,” says John Pitney, a congressional expert at Claremont McKenna College in California. “They didn’t care that much about it in the fall of 2012, and they care even less about it today.”

House minority leader Nancy Pelosi (D) of California and other Democrats are furious over the creation of the Select Committee on Benghazi, which they consider to be a partisan witch hunt. They note that Republican campaign fundraising has already begun based on the new investigation.

Seven congressional committees and a review board have found poor management and errors on the part of the Obama administration relating to the 2012 attack on a US mission in Benghazi, Libya, which killed four Americans, including the US ambassador. But they did not find a coverup.

The issue has been revived by White House e-mails obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request by a conservative watchdog group – e-mails that had not been delivered to congressional investigators. That has angered Republicans, as has the content of one of the e-mails. Three days after the attack, White House adviser Ben Rhodes wrote that it was important to underscore that “these protests are rooted in an Internet video, and not a broader policy failure.” Later, the administration said the Benghazi attack was not connected to the video.

The Democrats not only consider this case closed, but they also find the makeup of the new committee to be unfair – seven Republicans and five Democrats, rather than an equal number from each side. Moreover, there are no rules over subpoena power, no time limit as to duration, and no cost estimate. Thursday's vote was 232 to 186, with seven Democrats joining the Republicans and no Republicans joining the Democrats.

Some Democrats worry that if they aren’t sitting in their chairs when the panel does its work, they won’t be there to object.

“I think we’ve got to be there to make sure people understand what’s really going on and not allow witnesses to be badgered,” said Rep. Henry Waxman of California, the top Democrat on the Energy and Commerce Committee.

Of particular concern is the potential treatment of Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was secretary of State at the time of the attack, if she is called to testify.

But aside from the Clinton argument, those concerns are more procedural than political. And politics is what counts most heading into midterm elections. When you look at the politics – and the past – a boycott doesn't appear to carry much risk for Democrats.

In 2005, Democrats boycotted a special House committee set up to investigate the abysmal response to hurricane Katrina. They worried that the Republican-controlled House would “whitewash” the Bush White House of any responsibility.

Actually, it’s generally conceded that the report was fair. “The Katrina report from the House was not a whitewash. It did blame FEMA for inaction,” says Ray Smock, the former House historian who is now director of the Robert C. Byrd Center for Legislative Studies at Shepherd University in West Virginia.

But as Mr. Pitney points out, even a legitimate report didn’t hurt the boycotters. As with Benghazi, Katrina was too far in the past in the minds of most Americans – whose minds were already made up, anyway. “Politically, it didn’t have any impact at all. And so the Democrats’ boycott did not have any downside.”

But what if the new committee uncovers some bombshell? Well, that’s going to hurt the Democrats whether or not they are on the panel. And if the committee fizzles out, well, that, too, will happen with or without the Democrats.

At a press conference of House conservatives on Thursday, Republicans urged Democrats to participate in the panel, which they defended as simply seeking the truth and fairly reflecting the makeup of the majority in Congress. Rep. John Duncan of Tennessee said it is the Democrats who look partisan, as they seek to protect President Obama and Mrs. Clinton – a potential 2016 presidential candidate. In the end, commented Rep. Joe Barton (R) of Texas, “the judges are going to be the American people.”

An April Fox News poll shows most voters believe the White House is covering up Benghazi and want Congress to continue to investigate. (The poll was taken before the recent e-mails discussion.)

But Benghazi is never on the list of things Americans care most about as they head toward midterms. A boycott “might gin up a few constituencies on both sides,” says Pitney – which is where the slight blip comes in. “But I have yet to find someone talking about it in the supermarket line.”

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