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GOP-led House votes to establish select committee on Benghazi

By Dana Bash and Deirdre Walsh, CNN
updated 6:35 AM EDT, Fri May 9, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • House votes almost entirely on party lines to establish the panel
  • Democrats want the GOP-led panel to be evenly split with Republicans
  • But House Speaker John Boehner says the current plan for a 7-5 division was fair
  • Boehner also said forming the committee was a serious effort to get at the truth

(CNN) -- The Republican-led House on Thursday voted to form a select committee to investigate the deadly Benghazi terror attack, elevating its oversight of an issue that has become a partisan flashpoint.

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A nearly party line vote of 232-186 established the panel despite investigations by multiple House committees that have reviewed documents, interviewed witnesses and held numerous hearings.

The September 2012 armed assault on the U.S. diplomatic compound in eastern Libya killed four Americans, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens.

Democrats were still deciding whether to participate in the committee, arguing its creation was a political ploy to keep the controversy in play during a midterm election year. More will be known about that as early as Friday.

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House Speaker John Boehner said new questions about the Obama administration's handling of the matter now required the House "to respond as one institution" to arrive at the truth.

But House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said Republicans have exploited the tragedy, adding that the "nation deserves better than yet another deeply partisan and political review."

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Boehner said the committee would have robust authority and its investigation "will not be a partisan process."

New information released last week

The Obama administration has come under fire over questions about the level of security before the armed assault, its reaction to it, and its slow-to-evolve public response.

In moving ahead with the committee, Boehner said that "a line was crossed in two places."

First, he said documents unearthed by a conservative watchdog that surfaced last week raised questions about the administration's explanation of events after the attack. He also said the administration defied a congressional subpoena to turn over information.

There has been intense controversy over early statements linking the attack to a spontaneous protest over an anti-Muslim film produced in the United States that had sparked demonstrations elsewhere at the time. But it was soon revealed that it was a coordinated terror attack.

Republicans allege the administration politicized its response in a presidential election year.

The White House has said the new information cited by Boehner was broad-based and not specifically related to Benghazi.

Will Democrats participate?

The question now centers on whether Democrats will sign on.

As of now, they would get five of the 12 seats. But Democrats want more equity. Those issues center on membership as well as subpoenas and the questioning of witnesses.

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House Republicans are unlikely to bend to Democratic demands on the details of the committee, a GOP source familiar with the matter told CNN.

But when pressed about whether Republicans would make changes to give Democrats more power in the investigation, Boehner would only say that "there are further conversations continuing on that issue." Those talks were said to be intense.

In addition to a possible boycott, CNN has learned that Democrats also are discussing another option -- minimal participation -- something short of an all-out boycott and less than the full contingent of Democrats.

According to a Democratic leadership aide, this option would "make clear they're protesting, but also have full member participation to ensure that there are Democrats in the room to hold Republicans accountable for their behavior on the committee.

Meeting on strategy

On Thursday, many House Democrats attended a weekly meeting to go over strategy for floor action on the issue. But Pelosi and other top Democrats were still weighing the pros and cons from their rank and file on the issue of participation.

One aide told CNN that Democrats recognized they were unlikely to get changes they outlined in a letter to Boehner.

But the aide said that "the calculus on this is being weighed -- do we participate in a Darrell Issa-like committee or worse, or is it worth having someone in the room for it?"

Issa is chairman of the House Oversight Committee, which has taken a leading role in the GOP-led investigation of Benghazi.

His effort has been sharply criticized by Democrats.

Rep. Steve Israel, who heads the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which is in charge of electing Democrats to the House this November, is arguing privately it would be a mistake to participate.

He cited numerous reasons, including fear that independent voters fed up with Washington bickering would see Democrats as part of the problem.

Fundraising off Benghazi

Separately, the controversy grew more intense this week over revelations that Republicans were using it for political fund-raising. Democrats contend that just underscores their belief that the select committee was politically driven.

Boehner punted on the fund-raising question on Thursday, refusing to endorse or dismiss it.

Despite multiple questions about whether it is right for Republicans to use the tragedy to raise political cash, all Boehner would say repeatedly is "our focus is on getting the truth for the American people and these four families."

Boehner already appointed South Carolina Rep. Trey Gowdy, a former prosecutor, to head the select committee.

He said he would release the names of other Republican members in the near future. A GOP aide told CNN he expected the names to be released on Friday.

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