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House Republicans back off gutting ethics watchdog after backlash from Trump

WASHINGTON -- House Republicans scrapped plans to weaken an independent ethics watchdog on Tuesday after a backlash from President-elect Donald Trump, as a new period of Republican-led governance started taking shape on a tumultuous note.

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The U.S. Capitol Building is lit at sunset in Washington, U.S., December 20, 2016. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

WASHINGTON -- House Republicans scrapped plans to weaken an independent ethics watchdog on Tuesday after a backlash from President-elect Donald Trump, as a new period of Republican-led governance started taking shape on a tumultuous note.

The House GOP moved to withdraw changes made the day before to official rules that would rein in the Office of congressional Ethics. Instead, the House will study changes to the office with an August deadline.

Trump took to Twitter to slam House Republicans for voting behind closed doors Monday night to weaken 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 Tuesday morning, hours before the start of the 115th Congress.

He added the hashtag "DTS" - shorthand for "drain the swamp."

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GOP leaders are eager to wield their House and Senate majorities to rapidly advance an ambitious conservative agenda beginning Tuesday, 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 morning, Trump senior adviser Kellyanne Conway appeared to partially defend the actions of House Republicans, who voted in favor of making key changes to the ethics office, including placing its activities under the oversight of the House Ethics Committee.

"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.

In a statement released less than an hour after Trump's tweets, Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., who initially opposed the change to OCE, defended 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.

Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., also initially opposed the amendment to the House rules package. But McCarthy told reporters Tuesday morning that despite his personal opposition, the amendment would not be changed before a final vote on the House floor Tuesday afternoon.

"We're a collective group of individuals. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose," he said.

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But by early afternoon, things had changed.

The full House will vote on a rules package Tuesday. The proposed change to OCE now being shelved would have renamed the OCE as the Office of congressional Complaint Review. The OCE would not have been allowed to employ a spokesperson, 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 House Ethics Committee had been too timid in pursuing allegations of wrongdoing by House members.

Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., pushed for the weakening of the watchdog. His office said it would have provided "protections against any disclosures to the public or other government entities."

Democratic leadership said the proposed changes would run counter to Trump's vows to rid the nation's capital of corruption and other underhanded dealings.

"Republicans claim they want to 'drain the swamp,' but the night before the new Congress gets sworn in, the House GOP has eliminated the only independent ethics oversight of their actions," Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a statement. "Evidently, ethics are the first casualty of the new Republican Congress."

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.

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Part of the reason for the post-election improvement in the alliance between Trump and Ryan is 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 meet with House Republicans on Wednesday to talk about the way forward on repealing the federal health-care law, according to an aide.

Federal budget legislation containing the repeal could be introduced in the Senate as early as Tuesday. But Democratic opposition to a repeal and complex Senate rules mean that core pieces of the 2010 health-care overhaul are likely to remain, including the legal framework for the individual mandate and pieces of the state exchanges the law created.

Further complicating matters: Republicans have yet to unite around a replacement plan 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 areas where they can find common ground, such as infrastructure investments and trade. But they warn that they will not hesitate to fight him on areas 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 Schumer, D-N.Y., plans to say Tuesday in his first floor speech as the leader of the Senate Democrats, according to excerpts of his remarks provided by his office.

Schumer also plans to challenge Trump to rely on more than Twitter 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 plans to say.

 

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