WASHINGTON -- After weeks of intense debate about whether to boycott or join the House Select Committee on Benghazi, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) appointed five Democrats to the panel on Wednesday.
Pelosi announced that Rep. Elijah Cummings (Md.) will serve as the ranking member of the Benghazi panel, supported by Reps. Adam Smith (Wash.), Adam Schiff (Calif.), Linda Sanchez (Calif.) and Tammy Duckworth (Ill.). Cummings, in his role as the top Democrat on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, has been involved in many fiery hearings on Benghazi, and often led the Democratic response when Republicans sought to resurrect the issue. The other Democrats named to the panel also serve on committees that have previously investigated the 2012 attack on the American diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya.
All five Democrats joined Pelosi on Wednesday to address reporters on Capitol Hill, reiterating their belief that Republicans launched the investigation for political gain. Just six Democrats voted with the House GOP to establish the committee two weeks ago.
"We had hoped that our House Republican leaders would not go down the path of forming a select committee. We've already been there," Pelosi said. "What is the purpose of this investigation? What is the timetable? What are the milestones they are hoping to achieve?"
Democrats were concerned that such questions remained unanswered, she added, but ultimately they concluded that a fair and transparent investigation "simply would not be possible leaving it to the Republicans."
The decision to participate in the committee was a gamble, Democrats conceded, in that it potentially legitimizes the investigation as bipartisan, when they had intended to cast the committee as a partisan witch hunt. A proposal to appoint just one member to the committee -- a symbolic protest that would still allow them to keep tabs -- was "seriously considered," a Democratic aide with knowledge of the committee's formulation told The Huffington Post on condition of anonymity. But the idea was ultimately deemed unworkable.
"One of the problems is it is a lot for one person to do," the aide said. "There are hours and hours of testimony and reams of documents."
In the end, it was decided that putting a full slate of Democrats on the committee outweighed the potential benefits of boycotting the entire matter. The predominant concern that could never be alleviated by the pro-boycott faction was that the White House could end up blindsided.
"We have four years' worth of evidence of Republicans manipulating testimony and cherry-picking documents in order to paint a really horrendous and inaccurate picture," the aide said. "We needed to have as much Democratic visibility into the process as possible."
Cummings himself said as much during the press conference to announce the party's participation in the committee.
"I've seen first hand how abusive the Republicans have been during this investigation,” the Maryland Democrat said. "I believe we need someone in that room to simply defend the truth."
The Democratic aide noted that there was an off-ramp option for Democrats should they conclude that the committee is acting unfairly. That would be to leave the investigation en masse as a form of protest. That would be a bold move, however, and would resurface some of the same concerns that compelled Democrats to participate in the first place.
The decision to join the committee, aides said, was made by Pelosi, in consultation with her fellow members and the Obama administration. The minority leader ultimately made the call after she met with House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to press for Democrats to be granted equal authority on approving witnesses, issuing subpoenas and accessing documents submitted to the committee. Pelosi said an agreement on those conditions was not reached, but she noted that Cummings would continue to fight on behalf of Democrats for greater authority within the committee.
Boehner already named six Republicans to the panel, in addition to lead investigator Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), and he offered Democrats five appointees.
Gowdy issued a statement on behalf of the Republican committee members shortly after the Democrats were appointed. "I respect Mr. Cummings and his work in Congress," Gowdy said. "I look forward to working with him and the members of the committee toward an investigation and a process worthy of the American people and the four brave Americans who lost their lives in service to our country."
Boehner spokesman Michael Steel welcomed Democratic participation in the committee. "The American people deserve the truth, and we are glad House Democrats have chosen to participate in this serious, substantive investigation into the circumstances surrounding the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2012," Steel told HuffPost in an email.
Pelosi argued that the investigation had little to do with the truth, which she pointed out had already been revealed through prior investigations and countless hearings. "Unfortunately the Republican obsession with Benghazi has not been about the victims or the families or our country," she said.
Other members of Democratic leadership, such as Reps. Steny Hoyer (Md.) and Xavier Becerra (Calif.), privately urged their members to participate. Hoyer, the second-ranking Democrat in the House, told reporters on Wednesday that the fairness of the committee's hearings was still an open-ended question, but one that his colleagues could only influence if they were present.
"We shouldn’t leave the playing field without having our people there," Hoyer said.
Sam Stein contributed reporting.