WASHINGTON - Republicans are sharpening their focus on the deadly 2012 Benghazi, Libya, attack as the U.S. midterm elections loom closer, with a likely vote this week on establishing a select congressional committee to investigate the Obama administration's response.
The Republican-led House is planning the vote sometime in the next several days to authorize the committee, which would provide Republicans with a high-profile forum to criticize President Barack Obama and his team over the next several months.
The focus on Benghazi highlights a central plank in the Republicans' strategy to energize its base ahead of November's elections, when a fierce contest for control of the Senate is at stake.
Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed in the Sept. 11, 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic post in Libyan port city.
Republicans say the White House, concerned primarily with protecting Obama in the final weeks of his 2012 re-election campaign, misled the nation after Benghazi. They accuse the administration of stonewalling congressional investigators ever since, pointing specifically to emails written by administration officials in the days after the attack but only released last week.
The Obama administration denies any wrongdoing, and Democrats in Congress say no evidence suggests officials did anything but try to provide the public with the best information available. They accuse the Republicans of trying to generate a scandal to drum up political support, and to target Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was Secretary of State at the time of the attack and is now the presumed front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016.
House Democrats opened the door Tuesday to participating in the select committee investigation of Benghazi if they are equally represented on the panel with Republicans.
"If this review is to be fair, it must be truly bipartisan," said Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat.
House Speaker John Boehner has yet to outline his full plan for the select panel, whose establishment is all but a formality in the Republican-controlled House. But the Republican chosen by Boehner to head the investigation said Democrats wouldn't get the same number of seats — and votes — on the committee.
"Look, we're in the majority for a reason. We have more seats in the House," said Rep. Trey Gowdy, a second-term congressman from South Carolina and former prosecutor. He called Pelosi's comments a "good sign" that she is considering Democratic participation.
Republicans want a 7-5 ratio on the committee.
The two sides likely will lock horns in several other venues this week. House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, and the State Department are at odds over a subpoena for Secretary of State John Kerry to appear before the panel on May 21, when America's top diplomat has a scheduled trip to Mexico.
A Kerry spokeswoman said Monday the secretary of state has a scheduled trip to Mexico that day and wouldn't appear before Issa's committee. Kerry said Tuesday he'd comply with his responsibilities and that his department has "absolutely nothing to hide."
Meanwhile, the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday will examine Republican-backed legislation that would authorize U.S. military force against the perpetrators of the Benghazi attack.
And the House and Senate foreign relations committees will each get a chance this week to question the senior U.S. diplomat for Europe, Victoria Nuland, who played a role in the talking points created by the administration after the violence, even if those hearings are supposed to be about the crisis in Ukraine.
Asked about the select committee Monday, White House press secretary Jay Carney said the administration co-operates with "legitimate" congressional oversight, including sending witnesses to hearings and providing bipartisan panels with documents. He declined to characterize whether a House select committee would be legitimate or not.
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