Senate Republicans have blocked a bipartisan commission to investigate the Capitol insurrection, hoping to crush a probe into the violent assault before critical 2022 elections while GOP lawmakers manipulate a narrative around a riot inspired by persistent election myths.
Despite a last-minute lobbying effort from US Capitol Police officers and the family of an officer who died after the attack, and appeals from Democrats and some Republicans, the US Senate voted largely along party lines against beginning debate on the measure, marking the first successful legislative filibuster in this Congress, and effectively killing any chances of a bipartisan effort to investigate the events surrounding the 6 January riot and its aftermath.
The measure failed by a vote of 54-35. Eleven senators – nearly all Republicans – skipped the vote. Democrats Kyrsten Sinema and Patty Murray did not vote. It needed 60 votes to move forward.
“What are you afraid of?” majority leader Chuck Schumer asked his Republican colleagues on the Senate floor on Friday.
“This vote has made it official,” he said, adding that Donald Trump’s “big lie” of his stolen election myth that propelled the pro-Trump riot “is now the defining principle of what was once the party of Lincoln”.
“Shame on the Republican party for trying to sweep the horrors of that day under the rug because they’re afraid of Donald Trump,” he said.
As Mitch McConnell rallied Senate Republicans against the commission on Thursday, the family of slain US Capitol Police officer Brian Sicknick and two other officers who were on the scene that day personally lobbied members of Congress to plead for their support.
Gladys Sicknick, the officer’s mother, told reporters that she typically remains “in the background”.
But after several weeks of attempts among GOP lawmakers to downplay the assault, which injured at least 140 officers, or distance themselves from the “stolen election” narrative they amplified and which fuelled rioters to threaten members of Congress in an attempt to overturn the results, “I just couldn’t stay quiet anymore,” she said.
“If they look at the footage of what happened, it’s very obvious it was not a peaceful day,” said Mr Sicknick’s partner, Sandra Garza.
“If January 6 didn’t happen, Brian would still be here,” Capitol Police officer Harry Dunn told reporters. “Plain and simple.”
Their meetings echoed calls from Democrats to their Republican colleagues: get to the bottom of what happened on 6 January and defend the same law enforcement you claim you support, and that protected you that day, or continue to protect Donald Trump and his “big lie” that sparked the riot in the first place.
“How agonising it was to watch Officer Sicknick’s mom today, going door-to-door-to-door to ask people, ‘Please vote for this commission,’” Democratic Senator Michael Bennet told his colleagues on the Senate floor on Thursday night. “I hope they’ll search their conscience.”
Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski – one of a handful of Senate Republicans supporting the commission – criticised Senator McConnell for shifting his party’s focus on opposing Joe Biden’s agenda, rather than risk alienating Mr Trump’s base.
“To be making a decision for the short-term political gain at the expense of understanding and acknowledging what was in front of us on [6 January], I think we need to look at that critically,” she told reporters on Thursday night. “Is that really what this is about, one election cycle after another?”
She added: “Or are we going to acknowledge that as a country that is based on these principles of democracy that we hold so dear.”
Republicans argued that the makeup of the commission and its intent would be politically motivated, despite being evenly divided among both parties. Democratic and Republican congressional leaders would evenly appoint the makeup of the commission, and witness testimony would be subpoenaed only if it has the support of a majority of the commission’s members, or if the chair and vice chair (each appointed by Democrats and Republicans, respectively) agree to issue the subpoena.
The commission also would have to submit a report to the White House and to Congress by the end of the year and dissolve 60 days after, roughly nine months before 2022 elections.
In their push for the urgency of creating the commission, Democratic senators sought to thread the needle from baseless election conspiracy theories and the violence that followed with the ongoing mis- and disinformation campaign surrounding election results, right-wing culture war grievances and rhetoric from “stop the steal” supporters like Marjorie Taylor Greene and their behaviour while in office.
Democrats have also pushed to correct a record that, just four months from the attack, has already been manipulated by GOP lawmakers who were there.
They argued that Republican opponents of the commission are afraid of the former president and his looming influence and, crucially, losing a base of support that continues to believe the election lies that he refuses to shut down.
“An insurrection without consequences is a dress rehearsal for the next insurrection,” Democratic Senator Dick Durbin said on Thursday. “That is why we cannot sweep the events of 6 January and what led up to it under the rug.”
He recalled the bipartisan decision among lawmakers to return to the Senate and continue the certification of Electoral College votes, hours after rioters were cleared from the chamber on 6 January.
“I felt damn good about it,” he said. “To prove they wouldn’t have the last word. Sadly we know now they may have the last word … Let us prove to the American people that the mob didn’t have the last word.”
Senator Schumer admonished Republicans for failing to combat Mr Trump’s persistent election fraud claims, manifesting in “election integrity” legislation and partisan vote “audits” across the US.
“Republican state legislatures across the country captured by Donald Trump’s lie are tripping over themselves to restrict access to the ballot,” he said in remarks on the Senate floor on Thursday morning.
He pointed to a Republican-led “audit” of the results in Arizona, among contested states that Joe Biden definitively won, and the “bananas-crazy, right-wing internet conspiracy” behind it.
“That is how insane this has become: hunting for bamboo in ballots,” he said on Thursday. “We need to put a stop to this cancer in the Republican Party.”
During a closed-door meeting on Tuesday, Mr McConnell reportedly told attendees that advancing the commission would hurt his party’s midterm election message, with a commission report to follow that will likely connect the riot to members of his own party in the weeks leading up to 2022 campaigns.
“Look, I am sorry if an independent commission to study an attack on our democracy isn’t a Republican ad maker’s idea of a good time,” Mr Schumer said on Wednesday. “This is too important … We cannot let the big lie fester.”
Mr McConnell also reportedly asked certain Republicans who would be likely to support the commission to vote against it “as a personal favour” to him, according to CNN.
His objections follow passage of the measure in the House of Representatives on 19 May, with 35 Republicans defying Republican leadership to support a resolution written with bipartisan support.
House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy announced his opposition to the commission on 18 May. That night, House Minority Whip Steve Scalise said he would whip his GOP colleagues against it. Mr McConnell announced he was “undecided” on a vote that night.
Following Mr Trump’s acquittal in the Senate in his second impeachment trial over inciting the assault, Mr McConnell said unequivocally that “there’s no question, none, that President Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking” the riot.
Despite voting against convicting him, Mr McConnell said the riot followed a “growing crescendo of false statements, conspiracy theories and reckless hyperbole which the defeated president kept shouting into the largest megaphone on planet Earth”.
But on 18 May, the former president issued a statement raging against the commission proposal, pushing Republicans to “get much tougher” and echoing the deflection among GOP lawmakers to instead investigate “murders, riots and fire bombings” in cities run by Democrats.
“Hopefully, Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy are listening!” he said.
The following morning, Senator McConnell announced his opposition to what he called a “slanted and unbalanced proposal” from House Democrats.
“I do not believe the additional, extraneous commission that Democratic leaders want would uncover crucial new facts, or promote healing,” he said on Thursday. “Frankly, I do not believe it is even designed to do that.”
Democratic Senator Joe Manchin – a key critic of reforming the filibuster despite pleas from Democrats that doing so is the only way to pass crucial items on their agenda – slammed Mr McConnell for leading efforts to obstruct a vote.
“There is no excuse for any Republican to vote against this commission since Democrats have agreed to everything they asked for,” he said in a statement on Thursday.
“Mitch McConnell has made this his political position, thinking it will help his 2022 election,” Senator Manchin added. “They do not believe the truth will set you free, so they continue to live in fear.”
Mr McConnell’s office did not return The Independent’s request for comment.