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WASHINGTON — The U.S. House approved the creation of a bipartisan commission to investigate the causes of and government response to the Jan. 6 insurrection during which a pro-Donald Trump mob violently stormed the U.S. Capitol in an unsuccessful attempt to block the certification of the 2020 election results. Several Texas congressional members braced themselves that day for hand-to-hand combat but were able to escape to safety thanks to the police and successful barricades.
The bill, which passed 252-175, would give the commission subpoena power and was highly contentious within the House GOP conference. Thirty-five House Republicans backed the bill, including two Texans: U.S. Reps. Tony Gonzales of San Antonio and Van Taylor of Plano. It remains uncertain whether it will pass the Senate.
The proposition initially gave Democrats outsized power in the commission, but House Democratic leaders backed off that course and the commission will be equally divided between five Republicans and five Democrats. Commissioners cannot be currently serving in government. But to qualify, each person must have a background in two of the following areas: government service, law enforcement, civil rights and civil liberties, the armed forces, intelligence, counterterrorism, cybersecurity, technology and the law.
Should it become law, Congressional leaders will name appointees within ten days of passage. At least two Texans — former U.S. Reps. Will Hurd, a Republican; and Martin Frost, a Democrat — have surfaced in speculation as possible commissioners.
“I was in the chamber of the House of Representatives when a mob attacked the United States Capitol and the United States Congress—the elected representatives of the people. This was an attack on our democracy itself and one of the darkest days in our country’s history,” U.S. Rep. Lizzie Pannill Fletcher, a Houston Democrat, said in a statement. “We need a comprehensive understanding of what happened. A bipartisan, independent commission tasked with doing so will allow us to come together to learn the truth about what happened and do the work we must to ensure it never happens again.”
Republicans say they continued to have issues with the proposal.
"The events of January 6th should be responsibly investigated. But to say that this bill is a responsible and proper way to do that is demonstrably false," U.S. Rep. Chip Roy, an Austin Republican, said in a Tuesday statement. "We have an entire federal government with multiple, overlapping investigatory bodies that are designed for this purpose. The proposed commission does not have powers that existing law enforcement and existing congressional committees don’t already have; however, it does have an unlimited budget and a vague mandate."
Other arguments against the legislation included complaints that it would duplicate the efforts of state and local law enforcement. Those entities aim to hold individuals legally accountable for their alleged actions that day. The point of commissions like the proposed one is to evaluate failures within government operations that led to destruction.
The two Texas Republicans who voted for the commission are members of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, which endorsed the legislation Tuesday after it got over 75% support from its 58 members.
Taylor said in a radio interview Thursday morning that he voted for the commission in an effort to hold House Democratic leadership accountable for Capitol security shortcomings on Jan. 6.
"The Democrats are focused on one side of Pennsylvania Avenue, but there's a lot of fault and a lot of answers we need about what [Speaker] Nancy Pelosi and her team knew, when they knew it and why the Capitol was not secure," Taylor told Dallas conservative host Mark Davis.
Taylor added that he had "zero confidence" in Democratic leaders to investigate the issue on their own.
"Our best chance to get the answers that we need is through this bipartisan commission," Taylor told Davis.
Taylor emphasized the equal partisan makeup of the proposed commission, and he suggested Republicans could tap for the panel "conservative fighters" like former U.S. Rep Trey Gowdy of South Carolina and John Ratcliffe, the ex-Heath congressman who served as Trump's director of national intelligence. Explaining his vote, Gonzales also pointed to the potential for Republicans to have sway with the commission.
"Nancy Pelosi has been trying for months to make a review of January 6th a political circus instead of a serious investigation," Gonzales said in a statement. "While I believe it’s time we move past that day, I’ll take a process that involves Republicans and will hopefully allow for an unbiased view of the events of that day over the one-sided Democrat theater that she was originally trying to create."
Gonzales and Taylor both represent districts that have been competitive to varying degrees. They were both national Democratic targets last year and won their races by better-than-expected margins — Gonzales by 4 and Taylor by 12.
In recent weeks, some House Republicans have launched a full out offensive to minimize the events of Jan. 6.
As Republican Congressional leaders signaled their opposition to the bill on Wednesday, an anonymous letter written on United States Capitol Police letterhead circulated in which officers scathingly criticized members who opposed a commission.
"On Jan 6th where some officers served their last day in a US Capitol Police uniform, and not by their choice, we would hope that the Members whom we took an oath to protect, would at the very minimum, support an investigation to get to the bottom of EVERYONE responsible and hold them 100 percent accountable no matter the title or position they hold or held," the letter stated.
"It is inconceivable that some of the Members we protect, would downplay the events of January 6th. Member safety was dependent on the heroic actions of USCP. It is a privileged assumption for Members to have the point of view that 'It wasn't that bad,'" it continued. "That privilege exists because the brave men and women of the USCP protected you, the Members."
The U.S. Capitol Police twitter account stated that the letter was not an official position on the legislation.
Democrats openly speculate that at least some of the Republican opposition is rooted in a desire to protect former President Donald Trump, who spent months undermining the credibility of the presidential election to his supporters — hundreds of whom showed up at the Capitol on Jan. 6. Many engaged in hand-to-hand combat with U.S. Capitol Police in a bloody battle to protect members of Congress.
Moreover, a commission also likely puts U.S. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy on the list of witnesses, due to the fact that he communicated with Trump during the attack, reportedly pleading for him to call off the rioters.
The legislation is modeled after the 9/11 Commission which led to sweeping changes in how the government dealt with terrorism and upon its release, a book version of the report was a surprise national bestseller.
Patrick Svitek contributed to this report.