Sober inquiry or slash-and-burn? McCarthy at a Jan. 6 crossroads

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Kevin McCarthy has a choice when it comes to the Democrat-led investigation of the Capitol riot: Get serious or go scorched-earth.

The California Republican’s options aren’t necessarily binary, but the path he takes could shape his political future as he eyes the speaker’s gavel in 2023. Among McCarthy’s members who have already lived through two Trump impeachments, some want the GOP leader to pick fighters skilled enough to withstand a months-long bombardment from Democrats trying to use the select committee to spotlight the former president’s role in the deadly Capitol attack led by his supporters.

But the House Republicans most eager to serve on the Jan. 6 panel are the party’s firebrands, more practiced at crafting viral clips of verbal attacks than they are at making a sustained, credible case against top Democratic oversight practitioners.

That leaves McCarthy with the tricky task of tapping the right mix of select committee appointments — and the Republicans he picks must be prepared to go toe to toe with one of their own in Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), a critic of the minority leader who’ll be sitting on the Democratic side of the dais as House members dig into the insurrection.

The GOP leader could opt out of making appointments to the committee that Republicans have already attacked as a partisan effort to hit Trump and his party ahead of next year's midterms. Doing that, however, risks handing Democrats control of the narrative, and if recent precedent is an indicator, Republicans will likely choose to participate. McCarthy already has approached some members about potentially serving on the select panel, according to sources familiar with the conversations.

That doesn’t mean some of his strongest potential recruits will do so happily. Not only have House Republicans dismissed the Jan. 6 investigation as politically motivated, many are reluctant to take on a time-consuming probe they fear will cut into their time to shape legislation.

“For me personally, I've got bad climate policy we have to continue to shine a light on because it's bad for my state. I've got really good bipartisan criminal justice reform I'd like to see moved, and obviously there's finite time in the day,” said Rep. Kelly Armstrong (R-N.D.), a lawyer by trade who served on the House Judiciary Committee during the first Trump impeachment.

“But that being said, we have to participate in it, right?” Armstrong added. “I mean we have to — that's just my personal opinion, but I don't see a lot of benefit in not … and we need good solid members on that.”

Armstrong isn’t the only Republican hesitating to raise his hand for the Jan. 6 inquiry, a reluctance that contrasts with Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.), and Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), all of whom have privately or publicly expressed interest in the select committee. Rather than pick even one of that trio, some of McCarthy's members are urging him to look to more experienced players who will be prepared to face a carefully crafted Democratic strategy.

One House Republican who said McCarthy recognizes the select committee calls for serious-minded appointees fretted over the low prospects of "any good at all" coming from the investigation. "I mean, we've got three impeachment managers on the" Democratic side, this member said, sharing candid views on condition of anonymity.

Cheney's presence on the Jan. 6 panel at the invitation of Speaker Nancy Pelosi is also causing fellow Republicans heartburn. While the McCarthy critic's presence brings the committee closer to a partisan balance, with seven Democrats filling seats to six Republicans if the minority leader chooses to make appointments, some GOP colleagues see Cheney's appointment as a Pelosi gambit to stave off criticism that the inquiry’s findings will be partisan.

And the right flank of the House GOP, which exiled Cheney from leadership over her repeated condemnation of the former president, is going after the conservative scion directly.

“It’s no surprise that Congresswoman Cheney was chosen to be on the Jan 6 committee," said Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.), chair of the House Freedom Caucus. "Her blatant hatred towards Trump indicates she has a bias that’s perfectly aligned with the bias of Nancy Pelosi."

It's still unclear whether McCarthy will seek to punish Cheney for joining the select panel after warning a group of House freshmen that anyone who accepts a Pelosi offer to serve should be prepared to get committee assignments from Democrats. During a press briefing last week, McCarthy downplayed suggestions that he was making “any threats."

Despite McCarthy's comments, some Republicans say they got the opposite signal from leadership on Thursday after Cheney was named to a House GOP task force on China for another term.

“It is confusing for the membership to have Liz Cheney platformed as a co-chair of a marquee task force, while she's also being platformed by Nancy Pelosi on the ‘Hunt Republicans’ committee,” said Gaetz, a Judiciary Committee member facing a federal investigation into possible sex trafficking of a minor.

“I don't understand what leadership is trying to tell us when Liz Cheney is simultaneously jettisoned and embraced on the same day, within a matter of hours of each other," added the Trump ally and McCarthy critic.

Only two House Republicans — Cheney and Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), who both voted to impeach Trump earlier this year — split with their party to vote with Democrats in favor of the select panel. That marked a dramatic drop in support from the 35 GOP lawmakers who voted in favor of an independent Jan. 6 commission, a bill that passed the House in May before stalling in the Senate after a GOP filibuster.

A handful of House Republicans point to the imbalanced partisan makeup of the select committee as a reason why they were encouraging their GOP colleagues to support the bipartisan 9/11-style Jan. 6 commission. Still, they're already on the offensive: Some point to Pelosi's selection of three former managers of Trump's impeachments to serve on the select panel — Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), Administration Committee Chair Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) and Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) — as proof that she's more interested in going after Trump.

Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), who chairs the House Homeland Security Committee, has already dismissed the prospect of probing Pelosi’s role in responding to security breakdowns at the Capitol during the insurrection. Republicans have taken that as a sign that Democrats are trying to shield the speaker’s own decisions from scrutiny.

“Speaker Pelosi has set a playing field that is going to be stacked with her partisan sycophants — many have been part of the now-defunct Russia collusion story that cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars. Others have been part of impeachments that were nothing but partisan against President Trump,” said Illinois Rep. Rodney Davis, the Administration Committee's top Republican.

Even so, Davis said he would serve if McCarthy asked, adding that "if the conference agrees, we need voices on this," and that Republicans should pick "voices that are willing to talk about what went wrong in the processes leading up to January 6. And Democrats control the House. They ought to be able to answer some of those questions."

Democrats, for their parts, are prepared to claim the moral high ground as the select committee starts its work. They argue Republicans torpedoed a chance for a bipartisan commission where they would’ve had more powers. Pelosi's caucus also sees the moment as uniquely vulnerable for Republicans as some of their GOP colleagues court controversy with comments that have downplayed the Capitol siege in an attempt at revisionist history.

"Almost from the very beginning, there were Republicans who wanted to reckon with the enormity of what had just taken place, and there were Republicans who immediately wanted to blame it on Antifa, or trivialize the event, or just move on," Raskin said in an interview. "I really can't think of another country on Earth where people would try to sweep under the rug a terrorist attack on the capital of the nation."

Multiple House Republicans believe Rep. Jim Jordan, a Freedom Caucus bomb thrower turned leadership ally, is expected to play a role in the select committee. Some GOP members have mused that even if Trump doesn’t explicitly ask for the Ohio Republican to serve on it, the ex-president will be expecting Jordan's appointment.

In addition to Davis as a natural counterpart to Lofgren, other Republicans have suggested Rep. Mike Johnson (R-La.) as a good match for the panel. A Judiciary Committee and former constitutional lawyer, Johnson is seen as a possible counterweight to Raskin, who taught constitutional law.

Yet even as McCarthy offers few clues about if or when he'll make appointments, recent history suggests he won't boycott the committee. In April 2020, Democrats formed a select panel to examine the coronavirus pandemic and Trump's handling of it. The GOP blasted the effort as a means to undercut the then-president ahead of his reelection bid — and McCarthy later named Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) to lead the Republican lineup.