House GOP gears up for Benghazi probe
By: Lauren French
May 18, 2014 10:47 PM EDT
House Republicans return to Washington this week after their first chance to test how the special Benghazi committee plays back home.
There’s widespread agreement among Republicans that the new Benghazi panel is necessary to get to the bottom of the 2012 attacks on the U.S. mission in Libya that killed the ambassador and three other three Americans. They accuse the Obama administration of stonewalling existing congressional probes.
Republicans are still learning how to talk about the panel and Benghazi — an issue that revs up their base but does little to attract moderate and independent voters — ahead of the midterm elections.
Rep. Candice Miller, who represents a strongly conservative district near St. Clair, Michigan, said her constituents are increasingly focused on Benghazi after the creation of the special panel. But she still urged Republicans to be careful in discussing the attacks and the committee appointed to investigate them, saying Benghazi is different from the GOP’s other investigations into the White House.
“This is different from these other scandals, like the IRS, because Americans died,” she said. “It is important that the approach is very, very … is understanding of that. Facts are facts, however … and the facts will lead them to the truth.”
Rep. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, who is challenging Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor, said Benghazi is “front and center on people’s minds.”
He said he is framing the issue to voters as one of national security, focusing the discussion on questions about why repeated requests for additional security in Benghazi before the attacks went unanswered.
“To make it a campaign issue in the broader context in particular, of the failures of national security of the president, that’s what we’re supposed to be discussing,” he said. “They are a part — and should be a part — of the campaign.”
The National Republican Congressional Committee, the campaign arm for the House GOP, said it is advising candidates to discuss Benghazi while campaigning to highlight criticism that the White House needs oversight.
“We always advise candidates to do what fits with their position on the issues and represents their district, but clearly this is just another example of why we need a check and a balance on this administration,” said spokesperson Andrea Bozek.
Few Republicans are going on the airwaves to press Benghazi. Oklahoma Rep. James Lankford, who is in a tough GOP Senate primary, released an ad in April — before the special panel was formed — saying it is “right” and “appropriate” to question why the attacks occurred.
In an interview during last week’s recess, he said his constituents are deeply interested in the committee’s work.
“This comes up in every meeting,” he said. “People want to know who is being held to account, why did this happen.”
Democrats are closely watching to see whether Republicans stumble or overreach.
Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) called on Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R-Ga.) to resign his seat on the select committee after he spoke at a local GOP meeting on the scope of the House investigation — just days before voting opens in his primary race.
“Based on his [recent comments] at a political meeting, it seems Rep. Lynn Westmoreland will work to enable House Republicans to further politicize a supposedly sober investigation in an effort to rally the right-wing base,” Lewis said. “His participation on such a committee is as inappropriate as it is revealing.”
Representatives for Westmoreland did not respond to a request for comment.
For her part, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) hasn’t said whether she’ll even appoint Democratic members to the Benghazi panel. She is negotiating the committee’s rules with Republicans.
The GOP is still grappling with how — and whether — to highlight the Benghazi panel in appeals to donors for campaign cash. Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), the committee’s chairman, has urged his colleagues not to raise money off the issue, but the NRCC ran into heavy criticism earlier this month after it rolled out a fundraising campaign titled “Benghazi Watchdogs.”
But House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) told a group of GOP donors, politicians and activists while speaking at a fundraiser in St. Petersburg, Florida, last week that seeking money was “fair game,” according to news reports.
Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has refused to weigh in on the NRCC’s pitch, saying he is not involved in the committee’s fundraising operations.