Inside the Democratic Strategy on the GOP’s New COVID Origins Panel

Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty
Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty
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In the new House GOP majority, subcommittees are all the rage, with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and his conference creating three in the past month alone: one on U.S. competition with China, one to investigate the “weaponization” of the federal government, and one with the especially pointed ambition of investigating the origins of the COVID-19 virus.

By most accounts, that last subcommittee could be an outright trainwreck.

The coronavirus has been incredibly politicized—with deadly results—and questions on the origin of COVID-19 have led to wild conspiracies and dangerous anti-Asian rhetoric. Democratic policies on masking, testing and vaccine requirements have been admonished by Republicans, and eliminating them have been among House Republicans’ first priorities this term.

But instead of bracing for a disaster, Democrats are hoping they can actually work with Republicans on a sensitive subject. Their strategies to potentially counter Republican-led narratives are still in development. But for the Democrats who only received their appointments to the panel on Wednesday, it’s already a priority to develop a strategy.

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Asked if the subcommittee can actually be productive on a bipartisan basis, the top Democrat on the panel, Rep. Raul Ruiz (D-CA), simply said, “It can be.”

“And I'm gonna work hard for that goal,” he added.

In a brief interview with The Daily Beast on Thursday, Ruiz pointed toward a few promising prospects for why he believes the subcommittee can have sweet spots. For starters, he has a pre-existing relationship with subcommittee chair Rep. Brad Wenstrup (R-OH). According to Ruiz, the two “work very well together” and have cooperated well on legislation in the past.

“We fought for similar issues together for several years now. So I'm looking forward to having a leadership nucleus of the committee that will stay focused on the issues,” he said.

That sort of “leadership nucleus” would be a feat in Congress. Rarely—particularly in the House—do committee chairs and their ranking members coexist in peace. But Ruiz and Wenstrup, both of whom are doctors, could share some common knowledge and language that would benefit their working experience.

“As a doctor and a public health expert, I’m going to take a scientific, evidence-based approach that puts the people above politics and that’s patient-centered,” Ruiz said.

Wenstrup, who could not be reached for an interview, echoed that sentiment in a previous statement, insisting that by “investigating the economic impacts, vaccines and treatments, roles of our agencies, use of taxpayer funds, and the effectiveness of our public health responses, we can better pursue policies that will help prevent our country from being vulnerable in the future.”

Only three other Democrats are slated to serve on the subcommittee under Ruiz: Reps. Kwesi Mfume (D-MD), Debbie Dingell (D-MI) and Robert Garcia (D-CA).

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Democrats had their own select subcommittee on the coronavirus last term, helmed by Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-SC). His subcommittee at the time faced pressure from Republicans to investigate the origins of the coronavirus, too, namely from current House Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-LA) and current House Oversight Committee Chair James Comer (R-KY).

But Democrats largely left investigations into the origins of COVID to the Biden administration—and Clyburn insisted Wednesday that’s where they left it. “Origins—we never got into that.”

The subcommittee did issue a lengthy report at the end of the year on their findings about the nation’s response to the coronavirus, ranging from the Trump administration’s policies to shortages of protective equipment. Clyburn said his subcommittee’s work can be a model for the GOP’s time in charge.

“I would just say to them, look at our report. It’s thorough. And I think they’ll be able to use it as a guide,” Clyburn said.

Asked if he had concerns about misinformation coming from the Republicans on the panel, Clyburn insisted the Democrats' work on COVID last term was sound—even as Republicans look to pick it apart.

“I’m very secure in what we did, how we did it, and I think that’ll stand the test of time,” Clyburn said.

Other Democratic leaders appeared more skeptical this week about the GOP’s ability to keep conspiratorial rhetoric out of the committee.

House Democratic Caucus Chair Pete Aguilar (D-CA) told The Daily Beast Wednesday that the “Republican chaos and dysfunction with all of these select committees is the only common thread of all of them.”

“But we’ll be ready and we’ll have a strategy with the great members that we’ve put on these committees,” he added.

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That Democratic strategy is still shaping up. But Republicans are just getting started on their own. Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA), Nicole Malliotakis (R-NY), Mariannette Miller-Meeks (R-IA), Debbie Lesko (R-AZ), Michael Cloud (R-TX), John Joyce (R-PA) Ronny Jackson (R-TX) and Rich McCormick (R-GA) are all slated to serve under Wenstrup.

Greene’s appointment has perhaps drawn the most attention given her long and controversial record of criticizing the nation’s coronavirus response. But McCarthy would not engage with questions about Greene’s record Sunday on CBS’ Face the Nation, insisting instead that what “the American public wants to see is an open dialogue in the process.”

“This is a select committee where people can have all the questions they want and you’ll see the outcome,” he said.

As other members are gearing up for the task, McCormick told The Daily Beast he recently got dinner to discuss the subcommittee with Wenstrup and is confident the chairman wants to be “doing something that’s beneficial.” But McCormick cautioned that efforts by Republicans to get to the bottom of questions about COVID’s origins and pandemic spending could be construed as partisan bickering, even if that’s not intentional.

“We will have to point out some things that went wrong, and it’s gonna seem partisan, because certain people control it. Or maybe it’s gonna go against the bureaucracy or it should be against, you know, an ideology by party. And that’s just the normal debate that we have,” said Rep. Rich McCormick (R-GA), a freshman and emergency room physician by trade.

But still, members like McCormick hope that, amid a sea of partisanship and infighting in Congress, something, somehow could be different about this panel.

“I think we have fairly reasonable people overall… I hope we don’t make it political. I hope we make it into a discussion,” he said.

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