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Pelosi says House Dems divided on Benghazi probe

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DONNA CASSATA | May 9, 2014 12:18 PM EST | AP

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WASHINGTON (AP) — House Democrats stand deeply divided over whether to participate in a Republican-led investigation of the deadly attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, with party leader Nancy Pelosi calling the newest probe a "political stunt."

Some Democrats on Friday characterized the investigation as a political spectacle and insisted that the party avoid appointing members who would give it legitimacy. Others feared that that if they avoid it, they won't have the chance to counter GOP claims and defend potential witnesses.

"We must have standards," Pelosi told reporters at a news conference.

She said negotiations with House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, were continuing.

Democratic leaders huddled with the rank and file Friday morning to map out a strategy as Boehner moved full-speed ahead on what will be the eighth investigation into the Sept. 11, 2012 assault that killed four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens.

Boehner has tapped Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., to head the panel and was expected to appoint the six other Republicans on Friday.

Pelosi said Democrats have heard from the families of two men killed in the attack who said "don't take us down this path again."

Following the morning meeting, Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., indicated a boycott is still possible.

"We don't want a kangaroo court," he said. "We think that this whole Benghazi hearing is a waste of taxpayer dollars, but if at the very least they're going to establish a fair process then we could participate, but if it's going to be a kangaroo court, we can't."

But Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., a veteran of congressional investigations, argued strongly in favor of Democratic participation.

"I think the Democrats ought to be there every day, recording why it's a sham," he said.

Republicans, who insist the Obama administration hasn't come clean on what happened, voted Thursday to create the special committee.

House Democrats have issued several demands if they are to participate in the select committee. Rebuffed on their request for an equal split in membership, Democrats are seeking guarantees they'll have equal access to documents, a voice on subpoenas and the right to question witnesses. Staff level negotiations have continued.

Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., said the sentiment in the caucus was shifting away from a boycott in favor of participating, but Democrats wanted to know the "rules of engagement" first.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., floated the idea of token participation with just one Democrat, but Connolly said he didn't support that step.

A member of the Democratic leadership, Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, expressed his concerns about participating, saying, "if you're going to have a hanging don't ask me to bring the noose."

The panel's investigation means high-profile hearings in the months leading up to the elections, with Republicans grilling current and former Obama administration officials. Certain to be called to testify is former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, the Democrats' potential 2016 presidential candidate.

Gowdy, a former prosecutor, said he was unsure how quickly the committee could be established, but that he has begun planning.

"I've already started assembling and have been assembling a list of questions and kind of my own to-do list," he said in an interview.

The number of items on the list: "I'd probably say north of 100," Gowdy said.

Boehner maintains that the process will not be partisan, but Democrats have their doubts.

Boehner's legislation creates the special committee through the end of the year. It will have to be reapproved when a new Congress begins in January or go out of existence. The select committee has no explicit financial constraints. The speaker was expected to announce the Republican members on Friday.

In the 20 months since the attack, multiple independent, bipartisan and GOP-led probes already have faulted the State Department for inadequate security at the outpost, leading to four demotions. No attacker has yet been brought to justice.

Republicans say they're unsatisfied with explanations so far, and they have leveled a range of accusations against President Barack Obama, Clinton and other senior administration officials. Chief among them is that the administration misled the American people about the nature of the attack during a presidential election campaign and stonewalled congressional investigators.

Benghazi has produced 13 public hearings, the release of 25,000 pages of documents and 50 separate briefings. The select committee won't be the only inquiry, as other GOP-led congressional panels continue their investigations, including a House Oversight probe which just last week took the extraordinary step of subpoenaing a Cabinet member, Secretary of State John Kerry. Kerry hasn't said when he might testify.

Democrats deride the effort as a conservative campaign designed to energize Republican voters in typically low-turnout midterm elections.

Earlier this week, the National Republican Congressional Committee sent an email vowing that "no one will get away" from the committee's investigation and asking people for donations.

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Associated Press writers Erica Werner and Bradley Klapper contributed to this report.