Members of Congress, stunned along with the rest of the country by what happened on Sept. 11, 2001, gathered on the steps of the U.S. Capitol only hours after the unprecedented terror attacks.
“Senators and House members, Democrats and Republicans, will stand shoulder to shoulder to fight this evil that’s been perpetrated on this nation,” said House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., with Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., standing next to him.
In an extraordinary and extemporaneous show of unity, about 150 lawmakers broke out in song, together singing “God Bless America.”
The collective resolve shown by Congress would later be praised by President George W. Bush, who thanked lawmakers of both parties, adding that the country was “touched” by the moment.
In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, it appeared as if members of both political parties would swiftly work together. They would thoroughly investigate how the terror attacks occurred and take steps to make sure something like this never happened again.
It didn’t work out that smoothly.
Unity gives way to politics
Amid the latest partisan divide over investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, there’s a tendency to downplay the political differences among members of Congress in the wake of the terror attacks 20 years ago.
But while there was a unique bipartisan glow on Capitol Hill after 9/11, it wouldn’t take long for it to fade.
The 9/11 Commission, which would eventually be widely praised for dispassionately investigating the terror attacks, wasn’t immediately agreed to.
The president and fellow Republicans were initially wary that the Bush administration could face heightened scrutiny — and blame — for what happened.
Even after close to 3,000 Americans died in the terror attacks, it took more than a year for the panel to be established and signed into law by President George W. Bush.
“There was major opposition to a 9/11 Commission,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi reminded reporters earlier this year, as she discussed efforts to create a similar commission to investigate the Jan. 6 insurrection.
The Bush White House initially wanted an investigation into the terror attacks to be carried out by the House and Senate intelligence committees. But several lawmakers felt that would fail to provide a broad enough picture of what went wrong, or sufficiently extensive recommendations.
9/11 Commission is established
Ultimately, Congress and the White House agreed to the creation in 2002 of what was formally called The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States.
It was “chartered to prepare a full and complete account of the circumstances surrounding the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, including preparedness for and the immediate response to the attacks.”
The commission did not include any current members of Congress, due to concerns that political interests would affect its findings.
Five Republicans and five Democrats were named to the panel. Former New Jersey Gov. Tom Kean, a Republican, was named the chairman; former Indiana congressman Lee Hamilton, a Democrat, was vice chair.
Their work ultimately led to a formal report, which was released in 2004. The 567-page report was published as a book and actually became a bestseller.
It detailed intelligence failures and information on the jetliner attacks on New York’s World Trade Center and the Pentagon, as well as United Flight 93, which crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania
The report credited the passengers of United 93 with taking down the hijackers, who sought to crash the plane “into symbols of the American Republic, the Capitol or the White House.”
The plane was only about 20 minutes away from D.C. when it crashed into the empty field in Pennsylvania.
Overall, the report said, the “system was blinking red,” and indicated that an attack by al Qaeda was imminent.
Still, some have criticized the commission for not doing more to assess blame. But generally, the commission’s work is considered the gold standard for such an independent investigation of a major historic event.
Early support for 9/11-style panel for Jan. 6
In the immediate aftermath of the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, there was outrage from members of both parties in Congress.
And in the initial weeks after the insurrection, congressional Democrats and Republicans both expressed a desire to establish a 9/11-style commission to investigate the largest assault on the Capitol since the British set it on fire in 1814, during the War of 1812.
Also voicing support for such an investigation were the two men who led the 9/11 Commission — Tom Kean and Lee Hamilton.
They both wrote in a letter to President Joe Biden: “The shocking and tragic assault of Jan. 6th on the U.S. Capitol requires thorough investigation, to ensure that the American people learn the truth of what happened that day. An investigation should establish a single narrative and set of facts to identify how the Capitol was left vulnerable, as well as corrective actions to make the institution safe again.”
While there was some political wrangling over the creation of the commission, it initially appeared to be on track for congressional approval.
The chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., and the ranking Republican, Rep. John Katko, R-N.Y., reached an agreement on a panel that would include five Republicans and five Democrats.
“This is about facts. It’s not partisan politics,” Katko said during House debate on the bill to create the commission.
The House approved the panel, with bipartisan support.
Outrage over attack gives way
While the original 9/11 Commission ultimately overcame political headwinds, efforts to create a similar panel to investigate Jan. 6 have not.
Unlike the attack 20 years ago, which was carried out by international terrorists, the attack on the Capitol came from Americans.
As court documents show, many of those charged in the Capitol attack believed the false claims of former President Donald Trump that the 2020 presidential election was stolen.
While the former president was impeached for “incitement of insurrection,” he was acquitted in the U.S. Senate trial and continues to wield major influence on the direction of the Republican Party, as well as GOP lawmakers.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said on Jan. 13 on the House floor that Trump “bears responsibility” for the rioting at the Capitol. But he later opposed the legislation for the Jan. 6 commission, even though it was negotiated with the help of a GOP lawmaker.
In the Senate, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell led Republicans in blocking legislation to create the panel.
What’s ahead for the committee?
Without bipartisan support for a 9/11-type of commission to investigate Jan. 6, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi went to her backup plan: a select committee to carry out the probe.
Republicans cried foul when she blocked two GOP lawmakers who had been tapped by McCarthy to serve on that panel. He in turn withdrew all of his five choices.
Pelosi later named Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., to serve on the select committee. She has since been named the vice chair of the panel, in an effort to show bipartisan support for the investigation. Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., is also a Republican member. There are seven Democrats.
One of the Democrats on the panel is Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., who was an impeachment manager in Trump’s second impeachment trial.
“The impeachment trial of Donald Trump determined, I think by robust bipartisan, bicameral majorities, who incited the violence on Jan. 6,” he said.
“But we need to figure out who organized the violence on January 6, how did they organize it, and why did they organize it,” he said. “What were the purposes of the different critical actors who were present on that day?”
The select committee recently asked social media and telecommunications companies to preserve records of anyone who may have been connected with the attack. The request includes preserving some GOP lawmakers’ phone records, which immediately drew fire from McCarthy, the House’s top Republican.
McCarthy, who hopes to become speaker of the House in the midterm elections next year, threatened the companies and said Republicans “will not forget” if they turn over information sought by the panel.
The Jan. 6 select committee will no doubt continue to face various political attacks, as lawmakers carry out their investigation. But the panel’s leaders say they are committed to finding the facts.
Thompson and Cheney recently pushed back on McCarthy’s claim that the Justice Department found no evidence that former President Trump was involved in the insurrection.
“We will continue to pursue all elements of this investigation in a nonpartisan and thorough manner,” they said.
“We also remind Minority Leader McCarthy of his statements following Jan. 6, including his statement from the House Floor on Jan. 13 — which are inconsistent with his recent comments.”