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Democrats yet to decide on Benghazi panel

By Dana Bash, Deirdre Walsh and Tom Cohen, CNN
May 9, 2014 -- Updated 1904 GMT (0304 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Rep. Pelosi calls Republican majority's stance "fundamentally unfair"
  • Republicans announce panel members with glitzy Twitter post
  • House Democrats are divided over joining the new Benghazi panel
  • The new committee takes over investigations by several other panels

Washington (CNN) -- Will it be a boycott or a chaperone?

House Democrats remained undecided Friday on whether they would join a select committee created by majority Republicans to investigate the Benghazi terror attack.

The chamber's Democratic leader, Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, described a split in her caucus over the matter in remarks to reporters that lambasted Republicans for what she called a "political stunt," "subterfuge" and a "diversionary tactic."

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Options under consideration include participating as a minority bloc, which Republicans have proposed; having a lone member take part to register disapproval but maintain a presence, or rejecting the entire process as a partisan witch hunt.

"The question is what are the terms under which Democrats can participate," Pelosi said, citing the need for her side to concur with any committee decision to issue subpoenas.

A spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner said it was Democrats who have to decide what to do.

"The ball is in their court," said the aide, Michael Steel.

However, a letter from Pelosi to Boehner later Friday rejected the GOP stance as "fundamentally unfair" and said it would politicize the process.

Boehner, meanwhile, used a glitzy Twitter post akin to a concert or pro-wrestling poster to announce the seven Republicans to serve on the new panel chaired by GOP Rep. Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, a former prosecutor.

Joining Gowdy on the panel were Reps. Jim Jordan of Ohio, Susan Brooks of Indiana, Mike Pompeo of Kansas, Martha Roby of Alabama, Peter Roskam of Illinois and Lynn Westmoreland of Georgia.

Political posturing

Boehner created the select panel to streamline other committee investigations of the September 2012 armed assault on the U.S. diplomatic compound in eastern Libya killed four Americans, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens.

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Republicans have complained since the attack, which came less than two months before President Barack Obama's re-election, that the administration failed to properly secure the compound, neglected to send military assets to try to save the besieged Americans and then tried to cover up exactly what happened.

The White House and Democrats counter that multiple investigations have found security deficiencies, but not the kind of wrongdoing alleged by Republicans.

Pelosi took aim at a chief GOP inquisitor, House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa of California, saying Friday that he botched his panel's probe and Boehner now needed to distance him from the matter.

"Issa just is damaged goods," she said. "They had to move from him to another venue with another chairman. That's what this is. We have been there and done this over and over again."

In her letter to Boehner, Pelosi said the Republican plan for the select committee's membership and process would permit what she called the "unacceptable and repeated abuses" of Issa's management of oversight committee investigations.

Democrats complain of leaked information, denied witness requests and other actions by Issa they consider improper and blatantly political.

"We find it fundamentally unfair," Pelosi wrote, adding that "this process must not be politicized."

Boehner's choices to fill out the Republican membership of the select committee include Jordan, one of Issa's top attack dogs on the oversight panel.

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Schock: People deserve answers to Benghazi
Attackers set the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, on fire on September 11, 2012. The U.S. ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, and three other U.S. nationals were killed during the attack. The Obama administration initially thought the attack was carried out by an angry mob responding to a video, made in the United States, that mocked Islam and the Prophet Mohammed. But the storming of the mission was later determined to have been a terrorist attack. Attackers set the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, on fire on September 11, 2012. The U.S. ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, and three other U.S. nationals were killed during the attack. The Obama administration initially thought the attack was carried out by an angry mob responding to a video, made in the United States, that mocked Islam and the Prophet Mohammed. But the storming of the mission was later determined to have been a terrorist attack.
Attack on U.S. mission in Benghazi
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Photos: Attack on U.S. mission in Benghazi Photos: Attack on U.S. mission in Benghazi

For Republicans, the issue presents an opportunity to attack then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the overwhelming favorite for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016 if she decides to run.

Clinton is polling well so far against all likely GOP challengers, and the emotional Benghazi issue offers Republicans a chance to exploit one of her few potential vulnerabilities.

A nearly party line vote of 232-186 on Thursday established the panel despite investigations by multiple House committees that have reviewed documents, interviewed witnesses and held numerous hearings. Seven Democrats backed the formation of the committee. Most face tough re-election bids in "red" districts.

GOP plans call for the seven Republicans named by Boehner to be joined by five Democrats on the committee, which would have subpoena powers.

Democrats argued Friday that the special panel was a political ploy to keep the controversy in play during a midterm election year.

"We are trying to find a way to make this work but the Republicans have shown no inclination to make it work," Rep. Steve Israel of New York told reporters. "If this is going to be a true bipartisan inquiry, we will participate. If it is engineered to be a Republican campaign strategy, it is much harder for us to participate."

Keeping up the pressure

Boehner has kept up the pressure on Benghazi, saying Thursday that new questions about the Obama administration's handling of the matter now required the House "to respond as one institution" to arrive at the truth.

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He said the committee would have robust authority and its investigation "will not be a partisan process."

In moving ahead with the committee, Boehner said that "a line was crossed in two places."

First, he said documents unearthed by a conservative watchdog that surfaced last week raised questions about the administration's explanation of events after the attack. He also said the administration defied a congressional subpoena to turn over information.

There has been intense controversy over early statements linking the attack to a spontaneous protest over an anti-Muslim film produced in the United States that had sparked demonstrations elsewhere at the time. But it was soon revealed that Benghazi was a coordinated terror attack

Republicans allege the administration politicized its response in a presidential election year.

The White House has said the new information cited by Boehner was broad-based and not specifically related to Benghazi.

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House Republicans are unlikely to bend to Democratic demands on the details of the committee, a GOP source familiar with the matter told CNN.

But when pressed about whether Republicans would make changes to give Democrats more power in the investigation, Boehner would only say that "there are further conversations continuing on that issue." Those talks were said to be intense.

One aide told CNN that Democrats recognized they were unlikely to get changes they outlined in a letter to Boehner. But the aide said that "the calculus on this is being weighed -- do we participate in a Darrell Issa-like committee or worse, or is it worth having someone in the room for it?"

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