By: Ginger Gibson
July 17, 2013 11:24 PM EST
After months of fiery hearings and vows to get to the bottom of Benghazi, House Republicans are now barely making a peep when it comes to an issue they once couldn’t stop talking about.
Democrats say Republicans are lacking damaging evidence against the Obama administration in the aftermath of the attacks on U.S. diplomatic outposts in Libya. They argue the House GOP is in retreat over the investigation that some conservatives believed could bring down the White House or tar a 2016 presidential candidate.
And some conservatives are concerned that their leadership isn’t pursuing Benghazi with enough zest.
“I know our leadership in general does not want to look at that at all,” Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.) said. “They’ve said they have very little interest.”
An aide to one House leader dismissed the notion that leadership is uninterested saying, “That claim is ridiculous, just totally, out-to-lunch, La-La Land absurd.”
Benghazi is an issue that House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) once seemed obsessed with. House Republicans appeared to score a win after a splashy May hearing featuring two State Department officials telling their stories of how they personally were affected by the attacks in Benghazi, Libya.
But just one day later, the Internal Revenue Service revealed that it had been investigating conservative groups, and Republicans — including Darrell Issa’s Oversight and Government Reform Committee — had a new cause.
Months have now lapsed between Benghazi hearings, which in the churn of the 24-hour news cycle can feel like eons. The last public hearing in the House on Benghazi was on May 8.
Issa offered to let the two men behind the investigation into the attacks, former Ambassador Thomas Pickering and Adm. Michael Mullen, testify before his committee next week. But the California Republican made the request for a date on which both men had already told GOP Oversight staff they would be unavailable, according to letters exchanged between the parties and obtained by POLITICO.
Now, neither Pickering nor Mullen, who first offered to sit for a public hearing in May and sat for closed-door depositions in June, will be able to testify before September, according to correspondence between Issa’s staff and Mullen’s attorney.
Issa’s office pointed to scheduling conflicts as the reason for the delay.
“You should talk to Mr. Cummings,” Issa said, when asked about the status of the hearings, referring to Rep. Elijah Cummings, the committee’s ranking member.
The Maryland Democrat said his staff has been trying to work out a date for their testimony to no avail.
“I don’t know what’s going on,” Cummings said. He declined to say whether he thinks Issa is backing off the Benghazi investigation in general.
The House Foreign Affairs Committee had been scheduled to hold a hearing on Benghazi on Wednesday, but it was canceled when a witness backed out. And the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence has opted to hold only closed-door, classified hearings on the subject.
Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), a member of the Oversight Committee, said he thinks the work is continuing behind the scenes, even if the committee’s attention has been publicly focused on IRS targeting of conservative groups. And he says he isn’t convinced it all needs to be happening in public.
“I’m interested in information,” Gowdy said. “Committee hearings are not always conducive with getting out information. A deposition or a private interview is much more conducive. As long as the information is coming out, it doesn’t bother me that we’re not having hearings.”
And Republicans insist that work is still happening.
“House Republican leaders have worked since last September — along with the relevant committee chairmen and serious, responsible members — to hold the White House accountable, and get to the truth behind this attack and the coverup that followed,” said Michael Steel, Boehner’s spokesman.
Democrats think that it’s the content of Pickering and Mullen’s testimony that is keeping Republicans from shedding light on their testimony. At the time of Pickering’s deposition, Issa promised to hold a public hearing within two weeks but more than a month has lapsed.
Issa’s office disputes the two-week timeline, saying Cummings setting up a time frame in June was inaccurate.
Because Pickering’s testimony was a sworn deposition, Democrats are prohibited from releasing the transcripts, unlike the closed-door interviews conducted with IRS employees that were made public after Issa’s office refused to release them.
Those who attended the Pickering and Mullen deposition say both men came off as genuine and provided extensive detail into their Benghazi investigation, dubbed the Accountability Review Board report. Democratic Oversight staff described the ARB report as one of the most extensive ever conducted by the board.
Republicans were highly critical of the Mullen and Pickering report, unhappy that it recommended discipline for only midmanagement-level officials and didn’t allow some who were interviewed to read the classified version.
But the public criticism of the report and of Mullen and Pickering has dropped off since their deposition.
“My view is that both gentlemen are so replete with credibility and full and complete factual understanding of the entire situation, that it wouldn’t matter if they were questioned for weeks on end, nothing embarrassing could come up that has not already surfaced,” said Rep. Matt Cartwright (D-Pa.), who attended both depositions and participated in questioning.
Cartwright argued that for Republicans on the committee to “make any hay” on the issue, they have to first counter the quality and findings of the ARB report.
“To make it bigger than it is has been a failure, and I attribute that to the quality and caliber of the people who conducted the Accountability Review Board in the first place.”
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), who has been a vocal critic of the GOP on the issue, thinks the Republican argument has come to an end.
“After months of pushing a conspiracy theory on talking points, the GOP leadership has finally had to accept that the facts cannot be made to support their predetermined conclusion,” Schiff said. “Only recently have we returned the focus to where it should have been all along — apprehending those responsible and bringing them to justice. “
Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), a member of the Oversight Committee who attended the Pickering deposition, said he sees a lack of interest now from Republicans.
“There is nothing there,” he said. “It was becoming painfully evident that there was no connecting it higher up, which I think the Republicans were strategically trying to do. The fishing expedition for that was coming up really dry.”
But he thinks there are still parts of the attacks that Democrats want to discuss.
“We still haven’t dealt with the parts that are important, which are making sure you never have another Benghazi again, but that was never really the thrust of the investigation,” he said.