WASHINGTON — Democrats criticized House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy Wednesday after he suggested that the House's Benghazi investigation committee can take credit for Hillary Rodham Clinton's diminished public standing.

Democrats said the comments by the California Republican in a Fox News Channel interview contradict claims by the committee's leader and other Republicans that the panel is merely seeking the truth about the deadly 2012 attacks at a U.S. diplomatic facility in Benghazi, Libya.

McCarthy, who is considered likely to become House speaker following John Boehner's surprise resignation last week, told conservative host Sean Hannity that, "Everybody thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable (as a Democratic candidate for president), right? But we put together a Benghazi special committee, a select committee. What are her numbers today? Her numbers are dropping."

Clinton's poll numbers have dropped "because she's untrustable," McCarthy said. "But no one would have known any of that had happened had we not fought and made that happen."

A spokesman for House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said McCarthy's comments show that Republicans "were never interested in a bipartisan investigation to improve the security of Americans abroad. They've only been interested in pure extremist political theater."

Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the senior Democrat on the Benghazi panel, called it "shameful" that Republicans have "used the tragedy... for political gain."

Republicans "have blatantly abused their authority in Congress by spending more than $4.5 million in taxpayer funds to pay for a political campaign against Hillary Clinton," Cummings said.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said McCarthy had "committed the classic Washington gaffe of saying something that everybody already knows is true."

Clinton, a former secretary of state and the Democratic frontrunner for president in 2016, has been dogged by questions about her use of a private email account and server for government business. The Benghazi committee played a key role in discovering the private emails.

McCarthy's comments come at a critical time for the committee as it prepares to question Clinton next month in a high-profile public hearing. The panel also is expected to interview Huma Abedin, a top Clinton aide, behind closed doors. Abedin, considered one of Clinton's closest confidantes, is expected to testify Oct. 16, six days before Clinton.

Republicans have questioned Abedin's jobs at a private consulting firm and the private Clinton Foundation while remaining at the State Department.

Brian Fallon, a spokesman for Clinton's campaign, called McCarthy's comments "a damning display of honesty" by the likely next speaker of the House.

"Kevin McCarthy just confessed that the committee set up to look into the deaths of four brave Americans at Benghazi is a taxpayer-funded sham. This confirms Americans' worst suspicions about what goes on in Washington," Fallon said.

Several Democrats who serve on the Benghazi panel also criticized McCarthy, and Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, the senior Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, called for the Benghazi panel to be shut down.

"Speaker-in-waiting Kevin McCarthy admitted with pride what many of us have known for a long time: the Benghazi committee is part of a GOP strategy to derail Secretary Clinton's presidential bid," Engel said. "The victims of the attack in Benghazi and their families deserve better than to be used as a prop in a political sideshow. It's time to put a stop to it."

A spokesman for McCarthy said the Benghazi panel remains focused on getting the facts about the 2012 attacks that led to the death of four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador to Libya.

The Benghazi panel's investigation and an inquiry by the FBI into Clinton's email practices "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," said Matt Sparks, a McCarthy spokesman.

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