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Republicans on Benghazi committee: Hillary who?

Republicans steer clear of Hillary Clinton during a panel on Benghazi, but partisan sparks fly nonetheless, despite early high hopes.

It started off so well.

The cautious optimism for bipartisanship that surrounded the launch of a House Select Committee on Benghazi came crashing down to earth Tuesday as the panel divided into predictable camps along party lines. And the rift came before the panel even got to Hillary Clinton, the former secretary of state and likely future presidential candidate.

When it launched in May, both sides said they believed it could be a fresh start to the polarizing investigation into the 2012 terror attack on a diplomatic compound in Libya. Democrats praised Chairman Trey Gowdy, a former prosecutor, who chose a Democratic member’s idea for the panel's first public hearing in September.  

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But relations broke down ahead of the third hearing Tuesday, and tensions flared during the meeting. Democrats had long harbored suspicions that the panel was biding its time before launching an attack on what they believe is the GOP's true target -- Clinton -- but the committee never even made it that far.

Republican members steered clear of Clinton on Tuesday, uttering her name only once, in passing, two hours into the hearing. Gowdy clearly had no interest in discussing Clinton, referring only to “seventh floor principals” when discussing top officials in the State Department and even driving the discussion away from Clinton at one point.

When the committee's witness, State Department Deputy Assistant Secretary for Legislative Affairs Joel Rubin, said the panel had requested Clinton’s emails, Gowdy corrected him. “You and your colleagues prioritized former Secretary Clinton's e-mails and that is our priority,” Rubin said.

“Well, I would say multiple emails. If there are multiple accounts, we want all of the e-mails,” Gowdy replied.

Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio made the GOP side's only reference to Clinton, criticizing an independent review board because Clinton appointed most of its members.

But it turned out that presidential politics were not needed to politicize the panel.

The committee's top Democrat, Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland accused Republicans of withholding key information from Democrats and operating under a different set of rules. "I am saddened to report today that there are major, major problems with this committee and its work," Cummings said in his opening statement.

Cummings and Gowdy exchanged strongly worded letters before the hearing, with both sides accusing the other of politicizing the investigation and operating in bad faith. Gowdy, meanwhile, accused the Obama administration of being too slow to release documents, while Cummings accused Gowdy of being too slow to steer the committee forward and toward its eventual completion.

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Before the hearing, California Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff said in a statement that his deep “skepticism” about the committee “may have been all too justified.” Washington Democratic Rep. Adam Smith, meanwhile, had threatened to walk off the panel.

During the hearing, Rep. Linda Sanchez, Democrat of California, mocked the Republican-driven inquiry as a “quest to catch this mythical unicorn.” Citing eight previous investigations into the attacks, she said, “None have found this nefarious conspiracy.”

Gowdy and Republicans had been hoping to preserve and grow the credibility of their inquiry, which is part of the reason for their assiduous avoidance of taking pots shots at Clinton Tuesday. But Democrats are seeking to undermine the credibility of the panel, in the hopes that it will be viewed as a partisan witch hunt if it ever demands testimony from Clinton.

"If I were to conclude this investigation having not talked the secretary of state at the time, it would be an incomplete investigation," Gowdy told ABC News after the hearing. Clinton "needs to be talked to," he continued, but he said he would not bring her to the committee until he received requested State Department documents first, so that she can be properly questioned.

Cummings told reporters after the hearing that Clinton is willing to testify. “She said ... I’ll do it, period,” he said. 

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified Rep. Linda Sanchez as her sister, Rep. Loretta Sanchez.