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Support grows in the House for a 9/11-style commission on coronavirus response

What started out as an informal discussion among congressional Democrats this week has now led to several proposals and bipartisan interest.
Image: Senate Takes Up Coronavirus Relief Bill Passed By House
By the end of the week two different bipartisan pieces of legislation for a commission to explore the coronavirus response were in the works.Drew Angerer / Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — As criticism over President Donald Trump’s response to the coronavirus pandemic intensifies, support on Capitol Hill among both Republicans and Democrats for an independent 9/11-style commission to investigate the country’s response to the outbreak appears to be growing.

Preliminary conversations earlier in the week about a commission modeled on the panel that investigated the lead-up to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks involved mostly congressional Democrats. By the end of the week, though, two different bipartisan pieces of legislation were in the works.

On Friday, Reps. Stephanie Murphy, D-Fla., and John Katko, R-N.Y., announced a plan for a bipartisan commission based on the format of the 9/11 commission, with 10 members split equally between Democrats and Republicans, to analyze the country’s response to the coronavirus.

“Right now, we must all be laser-focused on the immediate public health and economic threats posed by COVID-19. But we do need a bipartisan, comprehensive review of our response when we emerge from this crisis. What did we learn? What did we do wrong? What did we do right? These are critical questions that must be answered,” Murphy said in a statement.

Murphy and Katko were not the only group working this week on a commission proposal.

Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Ill., also introduced a similar plan on Friday, co-sponsored by Democratic Rep. David Trone of Maryland as well as nearly a dozen Republican lawmakers, including Jeff Van Drew of New Jersey, Fred Upton of Michigan and Peter King of New York.

Such support for the commission did not appear to be quite as widespread earlier in the week when Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., first floated the idea in an interview with The Washington Post and announced he was working on his own proposal, a draft of which he circulated on Friday.

Schiff’s initial comments were met with significant pushback from some of Trump’s most fervent defenders on the Hill.

"His Russia collusion hoax failed, his Ukraine scam failed, and his efforts to cover up FISA abuse failed," said Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., the ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee, in an interview with Fox News on Wednesday. "So, Schiff is launching yet another dumb stunt to justify his never-ending media relations operation."

Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, the ranking member on the House Oversight and Reform Committee, called Schiff’s proposal for the commission an “attack” on the Trump administration's response efforts.

“And the person who is leading this effort is Adam Schiff — the same Adam Schiff who released the phone records of the president’s personal attorney, a journalist, and a sitting member of Congress,” Jordan said in a statement. “We should focus on stopping the virus, not politicizing the crisis.”

Even House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., initially seemed cool on the idea of the commission.

Pelosi announced Thursday she was creating a select committee on the coronavirus whose purpose was not to investigate the administration, but rather to oversee the trillions of dollars in spending approved by the CARES Act.

"This is not an investigation of the administration. Things are just so new and the rest, and we want to make sure there aren't exploiters out there,” Pelosi said in a call with reporters announcing the Select Committee. She did hint at the possibility of a panel farther down the road.

"So is there a need for an after-action review? Absolutely — and people are putting their proposals forward," she said.

"I see the value of that. I think right now, I respect some of these, I know at least two of our chairmen have made a suggestion to that extent. That’s something that we should discuss," she said, adding that such a committee "has to be bipartisan."

Pelosi’s focus on a bipartisan, apolitical commission is a common one on Capitol Hill.

“We really want to make this as objective as possible, because we want the recommendations to come out of it to be accepted by the public, and if it has any veneer of a partisan aspiration it won't have the same level of public acceptance,” said Schiff in an interview with MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell.

On Thursday, Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, introduced a proposal for a 9/11-style commission along with 14 other Democratic co-sponsors.

But Thompson’s proposal strayed from the original framework of the 9/11 commission of only 10 outside experts and was introduced without any GOP support, causing lawmakers in both parties to shy away from the proposal.

Thompson’s plan also called for the investigations to begin within weeks, a timeline that many lawmakers said would appear as partisan politics this close to Trump’s re-election. Murphy and Katko’s plan, for example, does not call for the investigations to begin until 2021. Schiff also said that he was considering “having the commission formed after the election.”

Still, it is unclear whether any of these proposals could gain enough support to pass the Republican-controlled Senate, or whether any of them would even be taken up in the chamber. It is also unclear whether Trump would sign a bill intended to scrutinize his administration, as George W. Bush did in November 2002, two years before he was re-elected.