WASHINGTON — In the shell-shocked days following the failed insurrection at the Capitol on Jan. 6, the idea drew support from everyone from Nancy Pelosi to Kevin McCarthy: an inquiry by Democrats and Republicans, modeled on the 9/11 Commission, to lay out what had happened and how to prevent another assault.
But 4½ months later, the push for a bipartisan, bicameral commission to investigate the deadly breach of the Capitol — charged with producing a historical document that will shape Americans’ understanding of Jan. 6 for generations — has collided with the objectives of a Republican Party that is increasingly seeking to rewrite the history of the 2020 election and the months that followed.
Even as the Democratic-controlled House advanced a bill to create a commission on Wednesday with 35 Republican votes, leading Republicans including Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell and McCarthy, the House minority leader, have turned on the plan, leaving the future of the commission uncertain if not entirely doomed in the Senate.
“Hell, we were all witnesses to this,” said Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama, a Republican, on Wednesday. “We don’t need a commission to tell us what happened.”
But their remarks suggest otherwise. Many Republicans, egged on by former president Donald Trump, have spent the past few months spinning an alternate and false history of the attack, during which more than 140 police officers were injured following hours of hand-to-hand combat with rioters. Lawmakers have suggested the rioters who trespassed on government property, shattered windows, toted Confederate flags, and threatened to “hang Mike Pence” were merely peaceful protesters, or even day-trippers taking in the grandeur of the Rotunda.
“You would actually think it was a normal tourist visit,” said Representative Andrew Clyde, a Georgia Republican who was photographed barricading the doors of the House chamber on his third day of work as a congressman as the mob pressed in.
A bipartisan commission to shoot down those distortions would be politically inconvenient for many Republicans, who have tied themselves ever tighter to Trump and the claims of election fraud that sparked the insurrection. But if they succeed in blocking the formation of a credible, bipartisan inquiry into the violence of Jan. 6, the country will lose a vital opportunity to understand the roots of an attack on the democratic transfer of power and prevent further erosion of democratic norms, according to veterans of similar inquiries.
“The public would be the loser,” said Thomas H. Kean, a Republican and former New Jersey governor who chaired the 9/11 Commission. “People really deserve to know the facts on stuff like this — this is the first breach of our Capitol since 1814.”
“If there’s no truth teller,” he added, “you can make up stories.”
Experts who study history and public memory say commissions are a key tool for setting the historical record straight, validating the experiences of victims, and shaping a country’s understanding of itself.
“Those who have a vested interest in suppressing facts fight truth commissions at every step of the way,” said Onur Bakiner, an associate professor of political science at Seattle University. “I’m not aware of any truth commission that was not called a political tool by some detractor.”
Initially, McCarthy included a bipartisan commission in a list of possible responses to the attack he circulated among Republicans in January — something Senate Republicans also wanted — and a group of House Republicans wrote their own bill to create one.
Democrats believe the violence was instigated by Trump, who headlined a rally that preceded the riot, but they have other questions about how groups like the Proud Boys and QAnon conspiracy theorists coordinated and — crucially — whether they had any inside help.
In the weeks that followed the assault, the negotiations to create the commission stalled, with both parties at loggerheads over its structure and scope. Democrats initially wanted to appoint a majority of the commission’s 10 members; Republicans said the group should examine violence in last summer’s racial justice protests as well as the Capitol insurrection.
Late last week, Representative Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, the Democratic chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, and Representative John Katko of New York, the ranking Republican member, announced they had a deal for a 10-member commission — with five appointed by each party — that would be charged with investigating what happened and making recommendations to ensure it does not happen again. The members could not be sitting members of Congress or government employees and must be experts in law enforcement, civil rights, intelligence, or other relevant fields.
“The speaker has agreed to virtually all of the GOP’s demands: that there be equal representation of Republicans and Democrats on the commission, that there is equally shared subpoena power, and that a report will come by the end of 2021,” Representative Katherine Clark, the number four House Democrat, said in an interview. “This is founded in bipartisanship and pursuit of the truth.”
But as Trump made his displeasure with the committee known from his hideaway in Mar-a-Lago — “Hopefully, Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy are listening!” he wrote in an e-mailed statement on Tuesday night — party leaders soured on the proposal. On Wednesday, McConnell denounced the proposal as “slanted and unbalanced,” even though his own party scored a concession on the partisan split. McCarthy, who could potentially have to testify in front of the committee, since he spoke to Trump by phone during the attack, announced his opposition on Tuesday.
The opposition from Republicans and their attempts to downplay what happened have angered Democrats, who say Republicans are trying to rewrite history and are afraid of what an objective investigation would show.
“This is unbelievable that members of Congress, and the leader of the Republican Party in the House of Representatives . . . sees political advantage to diminishing what happened on Jan. 6,” said Representative Jim McGovern of Worcester in an interview.
Representative Ayanna Pressley of Boston called it a “violent, white supremacist attack on our democracy” that must be investigated.
The commission needs support from at least 10 Republicans in the Senate to be passed into law — a tall order, given that only seven Senate Republicans voted to convict Trump for his role in the insurrection. Even some of those Republicans, including Senator Mitt Romney of Utah, have not come out in favor of the proposal.
The structure of the proposed commission is similar to the 9/11 Commission, an effort that was widely seen as a success and provided Americans with a shared set of facts about the nation’s biggest terrorist attack. That came at a time of deep political divisions over the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the 2004 election.
The commission, which came into being after pressure from families of the victims, worked with a historian to write a gripping narrative of the day’s events, and offered a set of recommendations to head off another attack.
“You can’t make recommendations and get unity if you can’t agree on the facts,” said Lee Hamilton, a Democrat and a former congressman who was the vice chair of the commission, and who said bipartisanship was key to everything they did — even where they sat during their meetings.
“The only way I knew to get credibility across the board was to make it bipartisan,” he said.
The commission staff chased down conspiracy theories, leaving out anything they debunked, and commissioners reviewed the report, line by line, to make sure they agreed on everything it contained.
“I was very, very concerned that it would be history,” Kean said. “I’m proud to say it is.”
It might be impossible to achieve the same shared history in today’s atomized media and political environment, but the question now facing the Senate is whether to even try.