WASHINGTON (AP) — House Republicans on Wednesday moved toward an election-year special investigation of the deadly attack on a U.S. diplomatic post in Libya, brushing aside Democratic concerns over the panel's scope and composition. The Obama administration, meanwhile, accused Republicans of "political motivation" after they issued a fundraising email linked to the Benghazi probe.
Ahead of a vote Thursday to establish the Benghazi select committee, House Speaker John Boehner vowed that the examination would be "all about getting to the truth" of the Obama administration's response to the attack and not be a partisan, election-year circus. "This is a serious investigation," he said, accusing the president and his team of withholding the true story of how militants killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans on Sept. 11, 2012.
Democrats pondered a boycott while waiting for Boehner to respond to demand from Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi that he scrap his plan for a committee of seven Republicans and five Democrats. Democrats insisted membership should be evenly split, and urged time and cost constraints for a forum they likened to a "kangaroo court" designed only to drum up GOP support ahead of the November elections.
Under Boehner's legislation, the select panel "can go on forever," Rep. Xavier Becerra, D-Calif., told reporters. "The amount of money they can spend is undefined and can be unlimited."
The committee's establishment is assured in the GOP-run House. But Republicans, too, expressed an interest in securing Democratic participation. They've made Benghazi a central plank of their strategy to wrest control of the Senate from the Democrats later this year. An inquiry that can be presented as bipartisan would have greater credibility with voters beyond the conservative base.
Republicans insist the White House, concerned primarily with protecting President Barack Obama in the final weeks of his re-election campaign, misled the nation by playing down intelligence suggesting Benghazi was a major, al-Qaida-linked terrorist attack. They accuse the administration of stonewalling congressional investigators ever since, pointing specifically to emails written by U.S. officials in the days after the attack but only released last week.
"A line was crossed," said Boehner, who in April said there was no need for a select committee. Correspondence among top officials showed the White House "played a more significant role" in deciding how the attack ought to be described publicly, he told reporters Wednesday. Unveiling legislation late Tuesday to establish the select committee, Boehner said the panel would get "as much time as needed" because of the administration's "history of slow-walking information."
The Obama administration says officials tried to provide the public with the best information available after the attack at a time when U.S. embassies, consulates and other facilities were facing angry demonstrations across the Muslim world over a YouTube video mocking Islam's prophet, Mohammed. It originally attributed Benghazi to a similar protest that extremists hijacked but retracted that account amid severe criticism. It says Republicans are persisting with Benghazi questions in the hopes of generating a scandal to gain political support.
Like House Democrats, the administration has yet to say if it will cooperate with the select committee. On Wednesday, White House spokesman Josh Earnest pounced on congressional Republicans for seeking campaign money off the investigation, describing a fundraising email earlier in the day as a "pretty good indication of political motivation."
The National Republican Congressional Committee's pitch said the GOP was "moving fast" to hold Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton "accountable for their actions" on the night of the Benghazi attack. It vowed that "no one will get away" from the select committee and asked people to become a "Benghazi Watchdog" by donating money. Suggested contributions started at $25.
Asked about fundraising in an interview this week, Rep. Trey Gowdy, the South Carolina Republican chosen by Boehner to head the investigation, had said using Benghazi was a bad idea. "I have never sought to raise a single penny on the backs of four murdered Americans," he said Wednesday on MSNBC's "Morning Joe."
House Democrats are in a bind. They don't want their presence to provide legitimacy to what they believe will be a partisan forum for attacks on the president and his top aides. However, boycotting the committee would mean losing the ability to counter Republican claims and provide cover for potential witnesses such as Clinton, the presumed front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016 should she decide to run.
A closed-door meeting among party members Wednesday morning failed to yield a consensus, according to a Democratic House member. Several senior Democrats argued that skipping the proceedings would allow Republicans to control the debate, according to the member, who demanded anonymity to speak about the private discussions.
Pelosi based her demand for an equal number of select committee seats, and votes, on the model set by House Ethics Committee investigations. Those committees have the same number of members from both parties.
But previous select committees have not, reflecting the parties' majority and minority status. For the most recent such special committee, established by Pelosi to examine global warming, Democrats controlled the House at the time and had a 9-6 advantage in membership.
In an interview Tuesday with The Associated Press, Gowdy dismissed the call for an even split on the panel. "We're in the majority for a reason," he said.
And during a spirited back-and-forth Wednesday at the House Rules Committee, Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas, said the special panel would need to be reauthorized after the congressional year ends in January. He wouldn't outline a cost limit, saying only that the House would use existing funds.
A select committee isn't bound by jurisdictional issues that can limit investigations by normal congressional panels, several of which already have investigated Benghazi. In 2005, Pelosi and then-Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid refused to appoint Democrats to a GOP-led panel to investigate Hurricane Katrina, believing it would be a whitewash of the Bush administration's response.
Separately Wednesday, the State Department said Secretary of State John Kerry would travel to Mexico later this month, making him unavailable to satisfy a subpoena for him to testify May 21 before the House Oversight Committee on its ongoing investigation into Benghazi. Kerry said Tuesday he'd comply with "whatever responsibilities" he has to Congress. Frederick Hill, a committee spokesman, said the department hadn't been in touch with the panel about how Kerry would comply.
Associated Press writers Donna Cassata and Nedra Pickler contributed to this report.