Ahead of Clinton's testimony, GOP, Democrats split on Benghazi panel

ap987722470674.jpg

Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-South Carolina, chairman of the House Select Committee on Benghazi, and Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Maryland, right, the ranking member, arrive as the panel holds its first public hearing to investigate the 2012 attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, where a violent mob killed four Americans, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Sept. 17, 2014.

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

Just days before her long-awaited testimony in front of the House Select Committee on Benghazi, Hillary Clinton ripped into the panel, questioning its legitimacy and its mission during Tuesday's 2016 Democratic primary debate.

"I've been asking to testify for some time and to do it in public, which was not originally agreed to," the Democratic presidential candidate said. "But let's just take a minute here and point out that this committee is basically an arm of the Republican National Committee. It is a partisan vehicle, as admitted by the House Republican majority leader...to drive down my poll numbers. Big surprise. And that's what they have attempted to do. I am still standing."

This Sunday, "Face the Nation" will talk with the chairman of the panel, South Carolina Republican Rep. Trey Gowdy, and the ranking Democrat, Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings, about what they hope to accomplish at next Thursday's hearing.

Top Republican: Hillary Clinton still withhol... 05:38

The panel was convened to investigate the September 2012 attack on a U.S. facility in Benghazi, Libya that claimed four American lives. But Democrats have said its true intent is more nakedly political, citing House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy's recent suggestion that Clinton's poll numbers "are dropping" thanks to the committee's investigation.

"Obviously, this is an unethical abuse of millions of taxpayer dollars and a crass assault on the memories of the four Americans who died, and I believe it should be halted immediately," Cummings recently said of the investigation. "However, I am not naive in thinking Republicans will cease their political attacks on Secretary Clinton, which is why I will be in that room defending the truth."

We'll ask Cummings whether he still believes the panel should be halted, and whether he's satisfied that all of the questions surrounding former Secretary Clinton's handling of Benghazi have been answered.

Republicans, led by Gowdy, have offered no quarter to their critics, saying the panel's investigation has always been focused on the government's response to the terror attacks - not on politics - and it will continue until lawmakers receive a full accounting of the incident.

"Out of the 54 witnesses interviewed...not a single one of them has been named Clinton. Of the 50,000 documents, new documents that we have accessed, less than five percent have anything to do with her, and if you look at the public hearings we've had so far, her name has not crossed my lips," Gowdy told Fox News last week.

"She was the Secretary of State at all relevant times, we would be crazy not to talk to her," he added. "She's going to be treated professionally, she's going to be treated fairly."

We'll ask Gowdy what outstanding questions he'd like to see answered, and how he'll try to keep the panel from being tarred with a political brush as the 2016 election begins dominating the news cycle.

Top Democrat says Hillary Clinton cooperating... 01:32

We'll also talk to both lawmakers about the claims of a former committee staffer, Bradley Podliska, who says he was fired, in part, because he defied orders to focus his investigative efforts on Clinton in an attempt to damage her politically.

Republicans have said that's simply untrue, and Gowdy suggested in a statement that it was Podliska himself - not the committee - that showed a desire to target Clinton politically. During our chat with Gowdy and Cummings on Sunday, we'll try to get to the bottom of it.

As the hearing approaches, the stakes could scarcely be higher. Clinton remains the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016, but the questions about Benghazi and her use of a private email server have eroded the public's view of her record and her trustworthiness, according to recent polls. Thursday's testimony could provide her an opportunity to quiet the doubters, but if she stumbles, it could open the wound anew.

Republicans, too, have a lot on the line. With the calls from Democrats to disband the committee intensifying, Gowdy and the GOP will have an opportunity to demonstrate that their investigation hasn't run out of gas. Republicans have pointed out that Clinton's use of a private email server would not have been exposed without the committee's work, but critics say they'll need to demonstrate there's still fresh ground to cover after multiple previous probes of the attack.

In short, Thursday's hearing is likely to be quite an exciting bit of political stagecraft. And this Sunday, only on "Face the Nation," you'll get a preview of the drama from two of its central players.

We hope you tune in! Check your local listings for airtimes.