First day of new Congress reveals GOP divisions over ethics

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Members of the U.S. House of Representatives are sworn in on the House floor on the first day of the new session of Congress at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S. January 3, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst - RTX2XEY6

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JUDY WOODRUFF: Good evening, and happy new year.

We’re going to be having some guests joining me here at the “NewsHour” anchor desk in the coming weeks.

Tonight, it’s Alison Stewart, who many of you will recognize from the weekend “NewsHour.”

Welcome, Alison.

ALISON STEWART: Well, thank you, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, in our lead story tonight: The 115th Congress is officially off and running, but House Republicans stumbled out of the gate on this opening day.

Lisa Desjardins begins our coverage.

LISA DESJARDINS: For Republicans, day one of Congress and what they hope is a bright now era for their party started with old issues of internal dispute.

House Republicans overnight rebelled against Paul Ryan and other leaders to try and change a House ethics panel. Then, this morning, they reversed course. The proposed change was about the independent Office of Congressional Ethics, or OCE, which reviews accusations. It cannot punish members itself, but it can refer cases to the House Ethics Committee.

The proposed revision would have changed the office’s name to Complaint Review and, more notably, would have stripped its independence, putting it under the control of the House Ethics Committee.

Today, some, like Iowa’s Steve King, were dismayed that the measure was pulled.

REP. STEVE KING (R-Iowa): I think we should have gone forward. And I’m going to push for the full disbandment and abolishment of the OCE, because they’re based upon the wrong principles. And no one should have to be subjected to public criticism that’s generated by anonymous accusers.

LISA DESJARDINS: But more Republicans, like outgoing Ethics Committee Chairman Charlie Dent, said the change would have been a mistake.

REP. CHARLIE DENT (R-Penn.): I thought it wasn’t the right way to proceed.

LISA DESJARDINS: Perhaps no coincidence, also saying it was a mistake was President-elect Trump, who asked on Twitter if the change should be a priority.

And House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi slammed Republicans, writing that the move showed clear contempt for ethics. It all led to rare tension on what is usually a happily bipartisan day with members’ families.

During the roll call vote for speaker, some Democrats pointedly mentioned the need for strong ethics, sparking boos from Republicans.

(BOOING)

REP. NANCY PELOSI, Minority Leader: Paul Ryan.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

LISA DESJARDINS: But now beginning his first full term as speaker, Paul Ryan spoke not to dissatisfied members, but to dissatisfied voters.

REP. PAUL RYAN, Speaker of the House: So, I want to say to the American people, we hear you. We will do right by you. And we will deliver.

LISA DESJARDINS: In the Senate, there was less political theater, but more signs of serious battles ahead, as new Senate Democratic Minority Leader Chuck Schumer took on the mantle of a key opposition voice to President-elect-Trump on Obamacare repeal.

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER, Minority Leader: Mr. President-elect, what is your plan to make sure all Americans can get affordable health care?

LISA DESJARDINS: And a big day today, but an even bigger day tomorrow up here, when President Obama and Vice President-elect Mike Pence will both be here to talk to their various parties about Obamacare — Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Lisa, what does this split among Republicans over the ethics office tell us about what’s coming up ahead?

LISA DESJARDINS: I think it has very serious implications.

Republicans have long had problems with issues of rules and procedures, and those continue. There is a lot of unhappiness with the conference. But I think the bigger point here is that they remain a divided conference on some serious issues.

And one big one is coming up in which no one in America has really the clear direction yet, which is, how do you replace Obamacare? So the House caucus with the Republicans is having trouble with this Office of Congressional Ethics, which they have been talking about for years amongst themselves. It raises questions about how they will form a plan to replace Obamacare in the next year, if that is possible.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, we heard Speaker Ryan say, among other things, “We hear you,” talking to the voters. And, in fact, it was some voters who were weighing in today that had something to do with this ethics outcome, didn’t it?

LISA DESJARDINS: It’s such a good point. I think that what we’re seeing here is, while voters are watching President Trump, they’re also very closely watching this Congress.

And it’s clear that voters don’t yet trust Republicans here in Congress fully, and they’re watching carefully. They reacted very quickly, overwhelming phone calls here at the Capitol. I talked to a dozen members of Congress who said, Republicans and Democrats, that their phone lines were clogged, and it was about that ethics change.

I talked to a House operator who told me it was just a mess, all those calls coming in. And, Judy, what’s amazing, that change happened late last night. Voters got up and made those phone calls right away.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Lisa, we also heard a little bit there from Chuck Schumer, the incoming Democratic leader in the Senate. What is the opposition strategy as of now?

LISA DESJARDINS: Right. Call him maybe the opposition in chief. Democrats have lot of recovery to do. It’s not clear who will be their leading voice, but right now Chuck Schumer seems to be it.

I’m not sure what their strategy is yet. Today, they tried out one, which is to question how Donald Trump operates. In his speech today, Chuck assumer said it’s irresponsible the way that Donald Trump makes decisions. He pointed to his tweets.

That’s something we have heard before, Judy. But hearing that, I thought, well, I’m not sure that Trump voters, that really hits where they are about Donald Trump. So, I think we’re going to see a lot of different attempts at answering Donald Trump. I’m not sure Democrats have figured out how to do it quite yet, but Chuck Schumer is the man to watch.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In just a few seconds, Lisa, what’s the word on Republican plans on Obamacare?

LISA DESJARDINS: Right.

Watch in the next couple of days, especially tomorrow morning, Judy, when President Obama tries to rally his Democrat and Vice President-elect Mike Pence tries to rally his Republicans. It’s a several-step process we’re going to be talking about for weeks.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And Lisa Desjardins is going to be right up there reporting. Thank you, Lisa.

LISA DESJARDINS: My pleasure.

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