House Republicans reversed themselves Tuesday under pressure from President-elect Donald Trump, and dropped plans to swiftly 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 immediately 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 over the timing on Twitter, they called an emergency meeting of House Republicans where lawmakers voted to undo the change.
The episode, coming even before the new Congress had 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.
"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.
"Focus on tax reform, healthcare and so many other things of far greater importance!" he added.
The reversal followed intense pressure against the ethics change.
"People didn't want this story on opening day," said Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma.
Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., who argued against the unilateral rules change Monday night, issued a statement Tuesday down playing the change and insisting that the OCE would operate independently though under the oversight of the member-only House Ethics Committee.
"All members of Congress are required to earn the public's trust every single day, and this House will hold members accountable to the people," Ryan said.
Ryan and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., had pressed for a bipartisan approach at a later date, but rank-and-file Republicans defied their leadership.
The 119-74 vote reflected the frustration of many lawmakers who have felt unfairly targeted by the OCE, but it was a setback for leadership caught off guard by the swift action.
Under the ethics change pushed by Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., the non-partisan Office of Congressional Ethics would have fallen under the control of the House Ethics Committee, which is run by lawmakers. It would have been 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 had 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."
Chris Murphy, D-Conn., tweeted Tuesday in response to Trump's post: "I helped set it up. There's nothing "unfair" about it. "Unfair" is when Congress was self-policing its own ethics rules."
Before Trump's tweets on the issue, Kellyanne Conway, a top Trump adviser, spoke supportively of the move. She said she had not talked to Trump directly about the issue but that under the previous system there had been "overzealousness" in going after lawmakers. "We don't want people wrongly accused," she said Tuesday on ABC's "Good Morning America."
But others said the new system would make it easier for corruption to flourish under Ryan and his leadership team.
"We all know the so-called House Ethics Committee is worthless for anything other than a whitewash — sweeping corruption under the rug," Chris Carson, president of the League of Women Voters, said. "That's why the independent Office of Congressional Ethics has been so important. The OCE works to stop corruption and that's why Speaker Ryan is cutting its authority. Speaker Ryan is giving a green light to congressional corruption."
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 package approved Monday also included a means for Republican leaders to punish lawmakers if there is a repeat of the Democratic sit-in last summer over gun control.