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House Republicans vote behind closed doors to gut ethics office ahead of new Congress

On the eve of the new Congress, House Republicans voted privately Monday to gut an ethics office that had been established as an independent watchdog on lawmakers in the aftermath of several high-profile scandals.

Republicans agreed to rename the Office of Congressional Ethics and put it under the oversight of the Committee on Ethics, which is a panel made up of lawmakers.

The full House will be asked to vote on the proposal as part of a broader rules package when the chamber convenes Tuesday.

The new Office of Congressional Complaint Review would be barred from investigating anonymous tips and prevented from disclosing its work. It would refer findings to the Committee on Ethics.

The move came during a closed-door evening session and ahead of Tuesday's opening of the new Congress and the Jan. 20 inauguration of President-elect Donald Trump, who has promised to "drain the swamp" of undue influence and corruption in Washington.

House Republicans were somewhat split over the late amendment, which was proposed by Rep. Robert W. Goodlatte (R-Va.), chairman of the Judiciary Committee. The vote was 119 to 74.

Democrats, led by Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, denounced the move. They may not be able to block the measure when it comes up for a vote.

“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," Pelosi said. "Evidently, ethics are the first casualty of the new Republican Congress."

Goodlatte rejected concerns that the proposal would weaken the office, arguing that it strengthens and builds on the work of the office that was launched in 2008.

"It also improves upon due process rights for individuals under investigation, as well as witnesses called to testify," Goodlatte said. "The OCE has a serious and important role in the House, and this amendment does nothing to impede their work.” 

Because there was dissent among Republicans, it's unclear whether the changes will survive or threaten to tank the broader package of chamber rules. The rules package is among the first orders of business when the new Congress convenes.

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