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House Republicans back off gutting ethics watchdog after backlash from Trump

House Republicans' botched attempt at reforming ethics investigations, explained (Video: Peter Stevenson/The Washington Post)

House Republicans scrapped plans to weaken an independent ethics watchdog on the first day of the 115th Congress after a backlash from President-elect Donald Trump and others, as a new period of Republican-led governance started taking shape on a tumultuous note.

In a complete reversal, the House GOP moved to withdraw proposed changes they approved the day before to official rules that would rein in the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE). Instead, the House will study changes to the office with an August deadline.

The about-face came hours after Trump took to Twitter to slam House Republicans for voting behind closed doors Monday night in favor of immediately weakening the independent ethics office. The vote defied House GOP leaders and complicated Trump's "drain the swamp" campaign mantra.

"With all that Congress has to work on, do they really have to make the weakening of the Independent Ethics Watchdog, as unfair as it . . . may be, their number one act and priority. Focus on tax reform, health care and so many other things of far greater importance!" Trump wrote on Twitter on Tuesday morning, hours before the new Congress convened.

He added the hashtag “DTS” — shorthand for “drain the swamp.”

House Republicans vote to rein in independent ethics office

Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), a recent chairman of the House Ethics Committee, said that members of House GOP leadership mentioned Trump’s opposition to the OCE changes at the brief, closed-door meeting in the Capitol basement, giving weight to reversing Monday night’s decision.

“That should be a consideration,” Dent said, explaining how leaders framed the thinking.

Democrats and other watchdog groups were also critical of the Monday night vote. A coalition of more than a dozen organizations and activists expressed their frustration in a Tuesday morning letter to House Democratic and Republican leadership. Members also faced a barrage of angry phone calls from constituents.

“I can tell you the calls we’ve gotten in my district office and here in Washington surprised me, meaning the numbers of calls. People are just sick and tired,” Rep. Walter B. Jones (R-N.C.) said of the simmering outrage over the proposed change. “People are just losing confidence in the lack of ethics and honesty in Washington.”

In a statement, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said, “Republicans should remember the strength of public outrage they faced in the space of 12 hours as they scheme to do lasting damage to the health and economic security of millions and millions of hard-working families.”

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The House passed a rules package Tuesday that did not include the proposed changes to the OCE. It did contain a controversial provision that will impose fines on members using electronic devices to take photographs, record audio or video or conduct live-streams on the House floor. The provision came in response to House Democrats staging a sit-in last summer aimed at forcing votes on gun control legislation.

The changes would have renamed the OCE as the Office of Congressional Complaint Review and ensured that the office would not have been allowed to employ a spokesman, investigate anonymous tips or refer criminal wrongdoing to prosecutors without the express consent of the Ethics Committee.

The OCE was created in 2008 to address concerns that the Ethics Committee had been too timid in pursuing allegations of wrongdoing by House members.

GOP leaders are eager to wield their House and Senate majorities to rapidly advance an ambitious conservative agenda, as Trump prepares to take office in under three weeks. But the fresh signs of discord threatened to slow their march.

Adding to the confusion Tuesday, Trump senior adviser Kellyanne Conway appeared to partially defend House Republicans’ move Monday to make key changes to the ethics office.

“I don’t want your viewers to be left with the impression that there’s no mechanism to investigate ethics complaints,” Conway said on MSNBC. “Particularly ethics complaints that come from constituents, which the former office has been entertaining.”

Conway, who will be a counselor to the president in Trump's White House, said she had not discussed the matter with the president-elect.

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Both House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) opposed changing the OCE when rank-and-file Republicans decided to defy them with a vote Monday. By Tuesday morning, both leaders seemed resigned to accepting it.

“The office is still expected to take in complaints of wrongdoing from the public. It will still investigate them thoroughly and independently,” Ryan said in a statement.

“We’re a collective group of individuals. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose,” McCarthy told reporters.

But by early Tuesday afternoon, things had changed.

According to several people in the private meeting Tuesday, McCarthy convened the gathering and laid out options for proceeding: Either Republicans could decide among themselves to change course on the ethics changes, or the matter would be hashed out on the House floor, where members would have their views publicly recorded.

With that, he asked if there was any objection. While some members maintained that the House should act immediately to rein in the OCE, the vast majority agreed to eliminate the proposal and move on.

“Essentially it was, we can handle it here, or we can handle it on the floor,” said one person present who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Later, Rep. Susan Brooks (R-Ind.), the incoming House Ethics Committee chairman, told lawmakers that her panel would review bipartisan changes to the OCE’s mission in the coming months, culminating in a proposal to be delivered before the House’s August recess.

Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) pushed for the weakening of the OCE on Monday. His office said it would have provided “protections against any disclosures to the public or other government entities.”

A government official familiar with the internal operations of the OCE disputed Goodlatte’s assertion that the amendment would “strengthen” the office.

“Representative Goodlatte’s statement that this is an effort to strengthen ethics is a baldfaced lie,” said the official, who was not authorized to speak publicly and requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. “This will do nothing but weaken the office and weaken ethics in Congress.”

The official said the office was “blindsided” by the amendment, but noted that members of Congress have been trying to eviscerate the office since the day it was created in 2008 following the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal. The official said members of Congress were particularly incensed by the office’s investigation into an expense-paid trip that 10 lawmakers took to Azerbaijan in 2013.

Republicans are under intense pressure to unify behind common goals in the era of Trump, after being plagued for years by infighting in Congress and on the campaign trail. They have identified a list of legislative priorities beginning with the repeal of the Affordable Care Act that they hope will energize most of the GOP. But they could face significant speed bumps.

Tuesday proceeded as a day of ceremonial rituals and consequential business on Capitol Hill. Members of the new House and Senate were sworn in during the afternoon. Republicans will hold a 52-48 advantage over Democrats in the Senate; their edge in the House will be 241-194.

House lawmakers reelected Ryan as House speaker Tuesday afternoon. Ryan won the support of all but one Republican, facing far fewer GOP defectors than when he first won the speakership in 2015.

The vast majority of Democrats voted for Pelosi, who was reelected as party leader last year despite an abortive effort among some colleagues to oust her after November’s disappointing election results.

After a tumultuous campaign in which Ryan and Trump sometimes clashed, relations between them appeared to have smoothed over in recent weeks. The uproar over the OCE, however, could hurt the fragile relationship.

Part of the reason for the improvement in the alliance between Trump and Ryan has to do with Vice President-elect Mike Pence, a former member of Congress who enjoys a good relationship with both men.

Sean Spicer, a spokesman for Trump’s transition team, said Tuesday that Pence “equally shares the concern” Trump expressed in his Tuesday morning tweets.

Pence plans to meet with House Republicans on Wednesday to talk about the way forward on repealing the federal health-care law, according to an aide.

In the Senate, the first bill introduced Tuesday was budget legislation that contains instructions for committees in both chambers to begin dismantling the Affordable Care Act. The bare-bones spending outline gives members of four committees until Jan. 27 to produce bills that each save $1 billion over a decade by slashing elements of President Obama’s’s signature health-care law.

Senate GOP leaders must also allow Democrats to offer a nearly unlimited number of amendments before a final budget vote. Democrats plan to use the process, known as a “vote-a-rama,” to offer a long string of potentially toxic amendments that could make it difficult for Republicans to vote for the final legislation, Democratic leadership aides said.

Further complicating matters: Republicans have yet to unite around a replacement plan for the law, known as “Obamacare,” or on when such a plan should take effect.

Health care is one of many issues Republicans plan to address during the next two years. Pence said in a December speech that Trump has a "mandate" for leading, and he identified a long list of priorities for the new administration and Congress. Among them: nominating a conservative Supreme Court justice and reworking the nation's tax laws. Tackling such issues has proven to be a contentious process in the past.

Republicans must also focus in the coming weeks on getting Trump's Cabinet nominees confirmed by the Senate. Democrats plan to resist some of Trump's picks.

In the Senate, Democratic leaders say they stand ready to work with Trump on issues where they can find common ground, such as infrastructure investments and trade. But they warn that they will not hesitate to fight him on issues where they disagree.

“It is not our job to be a rubber stamp. It is our job to do what’s best for the American people, the middle class and those struggling to get there,” Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Tuesday in his first floor speech as the leader of the Senate Democrats.

Schumer also challenged Trump to rely on more than Twitter in his communications as he prepares to become the 45th president. The president-elect is known for firing off tweets at all hours of the day. Often, the messages are blunt attacks against his critics.

“’Making America Great Again’ requires more than 140 characters per issue,” Schumer said.

Schumer spoke to a mostly empty chamber save for several dozen of his Democratic colleagues. The New York senator’s wife and grown daughters were in attendance, as were his elderly parents, who traveled from Brooklyn to watch their son become the first Jewish Senate leader.

During most of Schumer’s remarks, Sens. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) and Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) huddled on the Republican side of the room whispering to each other and ignoring Schumer.

Tuesday also marked a farewell of sorts for Vice President Biden, who in his role as president of the Senate greeted senators elected or reelected in 2016 at a ceremonial swearing-in.

Biden, who served in the Senate for decades before joining the Obama administration, talked about his future a bit with reporters afterward. He told them that a “couple universities” will soon announce they are going to provide him with an “awful lot of staff” and that he plans to continue working on domestic and foreign policy ideas.

The vice president said House Republicans exercised “wise judgment” in deciding not to make dramatic changes to the OCE. “It would be a very, very bad thing to do,” he said.

Biden was his usual chatty self as he snapped photos with senators and their families.

“Hey, man!” he said, cheerfully greeting Sen. Todd C. Young (R-Ind.). After snapping a photo with the family of Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), Biden quipped to Lankford’s daughters that they should be patient with their dad, because “fathers are hard to raise.”

Paul Kane, Ed O’Keefe, David Weigel, Robert Costa, Kelsey Snell, Scott Higham and Karoun Demirjian contributed to this report.

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