The new Congress opened with a stumble Tuesday after the Republican majority’s plan for gutting an independent ethics office drew a firestorm of criticism — including tweets of displeasure from President-elect Donald Trump — that forced lawmakers to reverse course in a sign of battles to come.
The messy debut of what was supposed to be a celebratory start on Capitol Hill foreshadowed roadblocks ahead as House Speaker Paul D. Ryan tries to lead his often willful GOP majority while maneuvering unexpected outbursts from the party’s new leader in the White House.
Trump’s early-morning tweet storm against surprise GOP plans for a watered-down ethics watchdog showcased a president-elect who has no qualms about publicly opposing and embarrassing members of his own party, even lawmakers he will rely on to implement much of his agenda.
And the instant course correction by the House to suit Trump’s preference showed he may not pay much of a political price for intervening. He may even draw praise.
“Mr. Trump has shown a penchant for being effective with Twitter,” said Rep. Mo Brooks, an Alabama Republican. “I am glad Donald Trump intervened because a change of this magnitude needs to be done more publicly and with more lead time.”
Despite the dramatic turn of events, Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell sounded upbeat Tuesday as they opened the 115th Congress, welcoming new lawmakers who arrived with families and friends to be sworn in to office and snap official photos.
The unforced error did not appear to harm Ryan’s reelection as speaker, nor did his fraught on-again, off-again relationship with Trump.
House Republicans overwhelmingly chose the Wisconsin Republican for another term, avoiding the tumult of past leadership elections, including in 2015 when he took over after former House Speaker John A. Boehner’s abrupt retirement. Just one Republican dissented on Tuesday.
“There’s no sense of foreboding today,” Ryan said after taking the gavel. “There’s only a sense of potential.”
The speaker reminded his colleagues of their vast responsibilities now that Republicans control the House, Senate and soon the White House. It’s “the kind of thing that most of us only dream about. I know — because I used to dream about it, a lot,” he said.
“The people have given us unified government. And it wasn’t because they were feeling generous. It’s because they wanted results. How could we live with ourselves if we let them down?”
Republicans have unfurled an ambitious conservative agenda, including repealing the Affordable Care Act, lowering tax rates, boosting economic growth and tightening immigration rules. Many are in sync with Trump’s campaign promises.
But despite their unified front, Republicans have yet to produce the kind of detailed first-100-days plan that often comes with a new session of Congress or a new president.
“We know that the coming days are going to require hard work,” McConnell said. “But if we work together, we’ll be able to continue a record of achievement.”
Senate Republicans quickly introduced legislation to begin the painstaking process for repealing Obamacare, with mostly symbolic votes likely to begin next week. The thorny details will not come until later, and because parts of the bill are popular even with Republicans, full repeal may never pass.
Democrats vowed to fight Trump on some issues — including efforts to deport immigrants here illegally — but said they will work with him when they can.
As Tuesday showed, Democrats may be able to find daylight between the White House and Republicans in Congress. Many Democrats were officially aghast at the last-minute Republican push to weaken the ethnics panel.
But Democrats also see possible coalitions with Trump on his calls to rebuild roads and bridges and to expand child care. Those issues have drawn a cool reception from conservatives on the Hill, but Trump’s team has signaled he wants to pursue them.
“We’re Democrats. We’re not going to just oppose things to oppose them,” Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), told CNN after he was sworn in as the Senate minority leader. “The only way we’re going to work with [Trump] is if he moves completely in our direction and abandons his Republican colleagues. That’s not going to happen very often.”
The ethics controversy was not the way Republican leaders had planned to showcase the new Congress when they convened GOP lawmakers for a private meeting late Monday night.
But the proposal from Rep. Robert W. Goodlatte (R-Va.), the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, to rein in the Office of Congressional Ethics struck a nerve with rank-and-file lawmakers. Many have chafed at the watchdog panel, which was set up in 2008 after high-profile corruption scandals sent several members to prison.
Under Goodlatte’s plan, the independent office would be put under jurisdiction of the House Ethics Committee, which is made up of lawmakers, and barred from investigating anonymous tips or releasing any details of its work to the public.
Ryan and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) warned lawmakers that opening day was not the time to make such controversial changes. They argued the proposal would carry more weight if it had bipartisan support from Democrats.
The leaders’ advice was ignored. Late Monday, House Republicans voted to tuck the proposal into a broader rules package set for a vote on Tuesday afternoon.
“Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose,” McCarthy told reporters Tuesday morning as he struggled to explain the changes amid an onslaught of questions.
Then Trump tweeted his point of view.
“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!”
He closed with “#DTS” — a reference to one of his campaign slogans, “Drain the swamp.”
Office telephone lines on Capitol Hill were already ringing by that time, and social media accounts filled with howls of protest.
Republicans said they had little choice but to back down.
Ryan convened a quick meeting behind closed doors in the Capitol basement, where GOP lawmakers were told the provision might tank the broader rules package that was set for a vote in several hours — a potentially embarrassing setback on opening day.
They agreed to shelve the issue — for now.
“The feeling was, it was the right thing to do, but the wrong time to do it,” said Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.). “It was better to delay it.”