WASHINGTON (AP) — House Republicans called on the chamber's likely next speaker Thursday to apologize for crediting the House Benghazi investigation panel with wounding Hillary Rodham Clinton's presidential campaign, delivering a rare public rebuke to a leading member of their own party.
The unusually open criticism comes at a tumultuous time for House Republicans, who are revamping their leadership team following last Friday's abrupt resignation by House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. They also reflect a concern within the GOP that Boehner's expected successor, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., may have damaged his own party with his remarks.
"I think it's a total mischaracterization of the good work that's been done on the Benghazi committee," Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, said of McCarthy's comments in an interview.
Chaffetz, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said he told McCarthy privately Wednesday that he still supported his bid to become speaker but considered his comments untrue.
"To discredit the committee and its purpose was wrong and he should walk back those statements," Chaffetz said.
The special House committee has been investigating the 2012 attacks on U.S. diplomatic facilities in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens. Clinton was secretary of state at the time and is scheduled to testify this month.
Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., expressed similar sentiments to Chaffetz on Thursday, saying, "I think he should apologize to the families because his statement jeopardizes the committee's work and trivializes it."
Massie is among several House conservatives who have frequently rebelled against Boehner, McCarthy and other House leaders.
On Tuesday, McCarthy told Fox News Channel that since the House created the Benghazi committee, Clinton's popularity in public opinion polls has fallen.
"Why? Because she's un-trustable. But no one would have known any of that had happened had we not fought and made that happen," he said.
McCarthy sought Thursday to explain his statement.
"It was never my intention to ever imply this committee was political, because we all know it is not," he said on "Special Report with Bret Baier" on Fox News Channel. "It has one sole purpose, let's find the truth wherever the truth takes us."
Boehner sought to move beyond McCarthy's comments, saying Thursday that the Benghazi panel's work has not been driven by a focus on Clinton and that its work will continue.
"This investigation has never been about former Secretary of State Clinton and never will be," Boehner said in a written statement. He said Clinton and the Obama administration have obstructed the committee's work and added, "The members of this committee have worked diligently and professionally to fulfill this important mission and they will continue to do so."
Congress' top two Democrats said the committee should halt its work. But one of them, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., acknowledged that Republicans won't do that and said Democrats for now would continue their work on the panel.
Pelosi told reporters that McCarthy's comments show that the committee is "an unethical operation" because Republicans have used taxpayers' money "for their own political purposes." She said McCarthy's remarks raise the question of whether the panel is breaking House rules or laws forbidding the use of federal dollars for political reasons.
She added, "It's obvious it should be disbanded, based on the leader's own words." She said that since Republicans won't do that, "I would encourage my members to continue to participate," but said Democrats would re-evaluate later.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said that it was "appalling" that Republicans have spent $4.5 million in taxpayer dollars on the committee's work, which he said has been a "right-wing political hit job." He said disbanding the committee would be "the right thing to do."
AP Congressional Correspondent Erica Werner contributed to this report.