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House Republicans cancel plan to dismantle ethics watchdog



Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan, a perennial Trump frenemy, stood by the move despite the President-elect's criticism.

(J. Scott Applewhite/AP)


Updated: Tuesday, January 3, 2017, 1:05 PM

Facing an intense public backlash, House Republicans backed off a plan to weaken the Office of Congressional Ethics on Tuesday.

"It's out, it was stripped, " Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) told the Daily News as he exited an emergency closed-door GOP meeting.

The sudden reversal came just hours after President-elect Donald Trump attacked House Republicans, questioning whether they should have prioritized gutting the independent, nonpartisan watchdog charged with keeping tabs on congressional ethics.

“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 said in a pair of tweets.

“Focus on tax reform, healthcare and so many other things of far greater importance!” he posted, before adding the “#DTS” hashtag denoting his oft-stated “drain the swamp” slogan.

His tweets — and intense negative coverage — persuaded House Republicans to back off their plan to undercut the office by stripping it of some powers and making it a part of the Ethics Committee, which is overseen by House members.

On Monday night, House Republicans quietly, and behind closed doors, moved to put the Office of Congressional Ethics under the jurisdiction of the House Ethics Committee — prompting substantial criticism from lawmakers who said it would weaken the only entity charged with overseeing independent investigations.

That change — one of the first moves made by House Republicans in the Congress — would have taken effect if approved by a full vote Tuesday afternoon.

House Republican leaders including Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) fought against the measure Monday night, and were left in the awkward position of defending something they didn't support Tuesday morning after Trump's tweet. Soon afterward, they called an emergency meeting of the House GOP conference to pull out the language. Republican members told the Daily News that while there was no official vote to do so, most members agreed in the private meeting to at least table the issue for another day after the backlash — and Trump's comments.

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"Trump weighing in meant something," Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R-N.J.) told the Daily News as he entered the meeting.

House Republican leaders made it clear that the change was a bad idea politically in the Tuesday meeting, and it was clear how few Republicans wanted to associate with the measure — of more than a dozen who spoke to the Daily News, only Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions (R-Texas) would publicly defend it, even though a majority had voted for it less than 24 hours earlier.

"Fear is a sad thing," a frustrated Sessions said as he left the meeting.

But most were happy they'd abandoned the measure, even if they were frustrated that this is how they'd begun their new year.

Former Ethics Committee Chairman Charlie Dent (R-Pa.) said "calmer heads prevailed this morning" to pull the measure.

"It's my first day and New Year's Eve and New Year's Day too," he said when asked if he was frustrated he'd spent his first day back at work fighting the measure.

A number of members said they wanted to revisit some of the measures, but not anytime soon.

The back-and-forth was an embarrassing and divisive way for House Republicans to begin the 115th session of Congress, which commenced Tuesday afternoon. Once Trump is sworn in next month, Republicans will have unified control of Washington for the first time since 2006.

DEC. 21, 2016 PHOTO

Trump’s latest salvo of exclamatory tweets comes at the expense of congressional Republicans.

(Andrew Harnik/AP)

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) was forced into the unenviable position of trying to minimize and defend its impact Tuesday morning even as he repeatedly pointed out that he'd opposed it in the Republican conference meeting.

"Those are the same arguments I made last night in the conference," McCarthy said when asked about Trump's tweets, reiterating that he and Ryan had opposed the move in Republicans' private meeting Tuesday.

Clearly fuzzy on some of its details, McCarthy denied the rule would undermine the Office of Congressional Ethics — only to have reporters read the exact language of the new provision back to him.

Trump wasn’t the only conservative blasting House Republicans for their move.

The right-wing watchdog group Judicial Watch also came out swinging, putting out a statement calling the move "a poor way for the Republican majority to begin 'draining the swamp'" and warning Americans would see it as "shady and corrupt."

The OCE, created by Democrats in 2008 after well-connected lobbyist Jack Abramoff was convicted of trying to bribe lawmakers to pass legislation favorable to his clients, handles its own probes into allegations of misconduct by lawmakers. It can recommend further action to the House Ethics Committee.

Under the proposal approved by House Republicans, the OCE would have had to answer to the House Ethics Committee — run by the lawmakers it is supposed to keep in check.

The proposal also contained language that says the OCE can’t consider anonymous tips against lawmakers — a move that would limit the scope of its investigations. The OCE would also have been barred from disclosing investigation findings after sharing their recommendations with the House Ethics Committee.

With Ginger Adams Otis

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