Republicans are set to launch a special investigation into a deadly 2012 attack on a US diplomatic post in Libya, raising the stakes in a political battle with the Obama administration as the election season hots up.
Democrats were considering a boycott of the investigative committee, which was expected to be approved formally by a vote in the Republican-led House of Representatives last night.
They do not want their presence to provide legitimacy to what they believe will be a partisan forum, yet they do not want to lose the ability to counter Republican claims and provide cover for potential witnesses.
Republicans claim the White House, concerned with protecting president Barack Obama in the final weeks of his re-election campaign, misled the nation by playing down intelligence suggesting the Benghazi incident, on 11 September, 2012, had been a major, al-Qaeda-linked terrorist attack. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed.
The Republican leader of the House, John Boehner, said the investigation would be “all about getting to the truth” and would not be a partisan, election-year circus.
Democrats in Congress accuse the Republicans of trying to generate a scandal to drum up political support, and to target Hillary 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.
Republicans have made Benghazi a central plank of their strategy to wrest control of the Senate from the Democrats in November’s election.
The Benghazi attack still energises the party’s conservative base, which could be critical in a mid-term election when voter turnout is traditionally low.
Democrats voiced concerns over the scope and composition of the select committee. They said they would make no decision on whether to participate until Mr Boehner responded to a demand from House minority leader Nancy Pelosi that he scrap his plan for a committee of seven Republicans and five Democrats. They say membership should be evenly split, and want clearer time and cost constraints for a forum they likened to a “kangaroo court”.
Republicans accuse the administration of stonewalling congressional investigators, pointing to e-mails written by US officials in the days after the attack but released only last week.
“A line was crossed,” said Mr Boehner, who declared last month he saw no need for a select committee.
Correspondence among top officials showed the White House “played a more significant role” in deciding how the attack ought to be described publicly, he said.
In an opinion piece yesterday in USA Today, Trey Gowdy, a former federal prosecutor and the congressman chosen by Mr Boehner to head the investigation, indicated he would re-examine the entirety of the Benghazi attack, including some questions long dismissed by Democrats and even some senior Republicans.
The Republican-led House armed services committee concluded months ago that the US military could not have responded in time to save the four Americans. But, in his article, Mr Gowdy asked: “Was our military response during the pendency of the siege sufficient?”
The White House says officials tried to provide the public with the best information available at a time when US embassies and other facilities were facing angry demonstrations across the Muslim world over a YouTube video mocking the Prophet Muhammad. It originally attributed Benghazi to a similar protest that extremists had hijacked.