WASHINGTON – House Republicans on Tuesday abruptly dropped a proposal seeking controversial changes to the Office of Congressional Ethics after President-elect Donald Trump criticized the plan, as the 115th Congress opened on a contentious note.
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The new Republican-controlled Congress gaveled into session at noon, and the opening day largely was being spent on leadership elections and other matters. Speaker Paul Ryan was elected to a full term in the post Tuesday afternoon.
But GOP leaders worked quickly to resolve the dispute with Trump after he challenged fellow Republicans Tuesday morning on the ethics office plan. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., held a short meeting and moved to pull the language.
The semi-independent ethics body was created in 2008 to investigate allegations of misconduct by lawmakers after several bribery and corruption scandals sent members to prison. Under the change initially pushed by Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., the non-partisan office would fall under the oversight of the House Ethics Committee, which is run by lawmakers.
While Democrats decried the plan, Trump earlier took to Twitter to nudge Republicans to focus more on repealing ObamaCare, pursuing tax reform and other priorities.
He wrote: “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, healthcare and so many other things of far greater importance!”
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The ethics change that had been sought by House Republicans Monday was part of a rules package that the full House will vote on Tuesday. The package also includes a means for Republican leaders to punish lawmakers if there is a repeat of the Democratic sit-in last summer over gun control.
The House still plans to vote on the overall rules package – but GOP leaders plan to deal with the ethics issue later, sometime before the August recess.
Speaker Ryan, R-Wis., and Majority Leader McCarthy already had argued against making a unilateral ethics change in a meeting on Monday, pressing for a bipartisan approach at a later date, but rank-and-file Republicans defied their leadership.
Under the proposed ethics change, the office would be known as the Office of Congressional Complaint Review, and the rule change would require that "any matter that may involve a violation of criminal law must be referred to the Committee on Ethics for potential referral to law enforcement agencies after an affirmative vote by the members," according to Goodlatte's office.
Lawmakers would have the final say on their colleagues under the change.
Democrats, led by Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, reacted angrily.
"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," the California Democrat said in a statement. "Evidently, ethics are the first casualty of the new Republican Congress."
In a statement, Goodlatte said the rules amendment "builds upon and strengthens the existing Office of Congressional Ethics by maintaining its primary area of focus of accepting and reviewing complaints from the public and referring them, if appropriate, to the Committee on Ethics."
But others said the new system would make it easier for corruption to flourish under Ryan and his leadership team.
The OCE was created in March 2008 after the cases of former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, R-Calif., who served more than seven years in prison on bribery and other charges; as well as cases involving former Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, who was charged in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal and pleaded guilty to corruption charges, and former Rep. William Jefferson, D-La., convicted on corruption in a separate case.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.