WASHINGTON -- House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy's campaign for speaker veered into damage control mode Wednesday after he suggested that the House Benghazi committee can take credit for Hillary Rodham Clinton's slumping poll numbers.
McCarthy's comment, made on Fox News Channel as he sought to court conservative support, seemed to contradict longstanding GOP claims that the Benghazi committee is aimed simply at uncovering the truth. And it gave credence to Democratic accusations that the real aim is to attack Clinton, the Democratic presidential candidate who was secretary of state when the attacks on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya killed four Americans.
"Everybody thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right?" said McCarthy. "But we put together a Benghazi special committee, a select committee. What are her numbers today? Her numbers are dropping. Why? Because she's un-trustable. But no one would have known any of that had happened had we not fought and made that happen."
The Democratic reaction was swift to the comments from McCarthy, who is locking up support for Congress' top job following Speaker John Boehner's sudden resignation on Friday.
Clinton called the comments "deeply distressing," saying they show "unequivocally that this was always meant to be a partisan political exercise."
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"It does a grave disservice and dishonors not just the memory of the four that we lost, but of everybody who has served our country," she said, in an interview with MSNBC. "I really regret the way that they have treated this serious matter."
From the White House podium, Press Secretary Josh Earnest said: "Leader McCarthy has committed the classic Washington gaffe of saying something that everybody already knows is true."
Numerous Capitol Hill Democrats joined in, with several calling for the committee to be disbanded.
McCarthy's office issued a statement through spokesman Matt Sparks that defended the committee's work and criticized Clinton, who is to testify Oct. 22, but without retracting McCarthy's comments.
"The Select Committee on Benghazi has always been focused on getting the facts about the attacks on our diplomatic facilities in Libya that led to the death of four Americans. This was the right thing to do and the committee has worked judiciously and honestly," Sparks said.
"These inquiries have nothing to do with politics and everything to do with the consequences of what the former secretary has done and her confusing, conflicting, and demonstrably false responses."
A spokesman for the Benghazi committee, Jamal Ware, said: "People view the Benghazi Committee through whatever lens or spin they choose, meanwhile, the Benghazi Committee is focused on, and our work is driven by, the facts."
Yet McCarthy's comments even had some fellow Republicans cringing. The controversy seemed unlikely to do serious damage to his speakership bid, since the 50-year-old Californian is the prohibitive favorite. But it did raise questions about his ability to handle Congress' hottest limelight in just his fifth term in office.
"When you're in the top leadership post you have to be incredibly cautious about anything that you say," said Rep. Matt Salmon, R-Ariz., one of the rebels who helped push Boehner out. "I've heard from a lot of members of the Freedom Caucus who are very concerned about having a leader ... that we don't just go out of the frying pan and into the fire."
Republican members of the Benghazi committee, led by Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., were left insisting that notwithstanding what McCarthy said, their aims are unconnected to politics.
"The focus of the Benghazi committee is to get to the truth. Trey has been clear about that, we've all been clear about that," said Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio.
When asked about McCarthy's comments, Jordan said: "You can ask Kevin about that. I know what our focus is. I know what I've been working on. I know my line of questioning I've been working on for Secretary Clinton, and they're about Benghazi."
The controversy emerged as a short-term spending bill to keep the government running cleared Congress with hours to spare before the midnight deadline -- though it will merely set up another shutdown showdown for December. Boehner scheduled leadership elections for Oct. 8, and news emerged that he had privately urged Gowdy to run for majority leader, though Gowdy ended up declining. The two current candidates for leader are Majority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana and Budget Committee Chairman Tom Price of Georgia, both established lawmakers, leaving some conservatives hunting for other options.
Amid the dissatisfaction, McCarthy has been working to distance himself from Boehner and ingratiate himself with hardliners in the House. In the same Fox interview where he made his comment about Benghazi, McCarthy gave Boehner a grade of B-minus on his speakership. That seemed a departure from comments Friday where McCarthy praised Boehner as a "true statesman" and "leader, mentor, and most of all friend."
Several conservatives sounded unmoved by McCarthy's new approach.
"I don't want to be critical of Kevin on this but he's in a political period and he has to say something," said Rep. John Fleming, R-La. "The question is: 'what is he going to do?'"