WASHINGTON — The new GOP era in Washington got off to a messy start Tuesday as House Republicans, under pressure from President-elect Donald Trump, abruptly dropped plans to gut an independent congressional ethics board.
The dizzying about-face came as lawmakers convened for the first day of the 115th Congress, an occasion normally reserved for pomp and ceremony under the Capitol Dome. Instead, House Republicans found themselves under attack not only from Democrats but from their new president, over their secretive move Monday to neuter the independent Office of Congressional Ethics and place it under lawmakers’ control.
GOP leaders scrambled to contain the damage, and within hours of Trump registering his criticism on Twitter, they called an emergency meeting where House Republicans voted without opposition to undo the change.
The episode, coming even before the new Congress was convened and lawmakers were sworn in, was a powerful illustration of the sway Trump may hold over his party in a Washington that will be fully under Republican control for the first time in a decade. GOP lawmakers who’ve felt unfairly targeted by the ethics office had defied their own leaders with their initial vote to neuter the body, but once Trump weighed in they backpedaled immediately.
“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,” Trump had asked over Twitter Tuesday morning, in an objection that appeared focused more on timing than on substance. Trump, who will take office in a little over two weeks, said the focus should be on tax reform and health care, and he included the hash-tag #DTS, for “Drain the Swamp,” his oft-repeated campaign promise to bring change to Washington.
Democrats and even many Republicans were quick to point out that the lawmakers’ plans for their ethics watchdog flew in the face of that notion. The measure was part of a GOP-written rules package that looked like it could fail after Trump registered his objections amid a public outcry from good government activists. The stripped-down package was approved late Tuesday by the House, 234-193.
“We were elected on a promise to drain the swamp, and starting the session by relaxing ethics rules is a very bad start,” said GOP Rep. Tom McClintock of California.
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy mentioned Trump’s opposition in the emergency meeting, and some lawmakers said it had a powerful effect.
“I do believe when President-elect Trump tweeted out…members got calls,” said Rep. Lou Barletta, R-Pa. Trump spoke by phone with House Speaker Paul Ryan on Tuesday after the ethics change was dropped.
The Office of Congressional Ethics was created in 2008 after several bribery and corruption cases in the House, but lawmakers of both parties have groused about the way it operates.
Lawmakers were especially incensed by an investigation of members of Congress from both parties who went on a 2013 trip to Azerbaijan paid for by that country’s government. Lawmakers said after the investigation was made public in 2015 that they had no idea the trip was paid for by the government, and the House Ethics Committee ultimately cleared them.
Once the ethics controversy was dispensed with, Congress returned to the ceremonial business. As set out in the Constitution, both chambers gaveled in at noon, and as storm clouds threatened outside, the halls of the Capitol filled with lawmakers’ children, friends and spouses on hand to witness the procedures. The day had a festive feel of the first day back at school, as new arrivals roamed the halls with old hands, exchanging greetings and taking in the day.
In the Senate, seven new members joined those who won re-election, taking the oath of office administered by Vice President Joe Biden. The Senate will be controlled 52-48 by the GOP and includes two new Republicans and five new Democrats. They include Illinois’ Tammy Duckworth, a double-amputee Iraq war vet, who walked to the dais and stood for the oath.
Biden remains president of the Senate until Trump becomes president Jan. 20; then Vice President-elect Mike Pence will take over.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York set battle lines, saying Democrats will hold Trump to his promises to create jobs, raise incomes and protect Americans but will “fight him tooth and nail when he appeals to the baser instincts that diminish America and its greatness.”
Issues confronting America are complex, he said, and “we cannot tweet them away.”
In the House, lawmakers easily re-elected Ryan, of Wisconsin, as their speaker. The House will number 241 Republicans and 194 Democrats; among the members are 52 freshmen.
Behind the ceremony was a sense of anticipation, as Republicans prepare an ambitious agenda, beginning with dismantling President Barack Obama’s health care law. The GOP directed Senate committees to produce repeal legislation by Jan. 27 while debate begins this week.
But there was uncertainty, too, as Republicans confront an untested new president who has opposed fundamental elements of GOP orthodoxy and may exercise his influence in unpredictable ways, as illustrated with the ethics kerfuffle.
“The people have given us unified government, and it wasn’t because they were feeling generous, it’s because they wanted results,” Ryan said. “How could we live with ourselves if we let them down?”
Associated Press writers Matthew Daly, Mary Clare Jalonick, Richard Lardner, Andrew Taylor, Alan Fram and Kenneth Thomas contributed to this report.