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After Trump scolds them, House Republicans reverse their ethics vote

Trump is already clashing with the new Republican Congress on Twitter

The new Republican-controlled Congress is about to welcome a Republican president into office. But its first several hours showed that unified governing can be a bumpy ride for the party in power.

The first day of the 115th Congress was Tuesday, but things really began Monday night, when House Republicans voted behind closed doors to defang the Office of Congressional Ethics, an independent nonpartisan investigative group launched in 2008 in the wake of the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal.

OCE, as it’s known on the Hill, has long been a thorn in the side of both Democrat and Republican House members. (Government watchdog groups like the OCE, however.) There have been attempts to defund it and complaints about it, but no lawmakers — Democrats or Republicans — had ever actually gone through with efforts to kill it.

The Republican leadership reportedly opposed the vote. Gutting the OCE would look to voters like Congress was weakening ethics oversight — not a good look in the era of “Drain the swamp.” So House GOP leaders urged rank-and-file Republicans to leave the OCE alone.

Monday’s vote came as a surprise to many, and in a scene oft repeated since 2011, GOP leadership was left holding an embarrassing political bag. On Tuesday, stories about the OCE changes prompted a massive public response and bipartisan outcry. Google searches of “who is my representative” spiked.

Then the new guy got involved. President-elect Donald Trump, 17 days away from inauguration, posted two tweets that basically backed up the GOP House leadership — the OCE is “unfair,” he tweeted, but ripping the guts out of it might not be the best first move for the new Congress.

Trump’s tweets went out at about 10 a.m. A half-hour later, House Speaker Paul Ryan put out a statement making the case that the OCE changes weren’t about weakening ethics oversight but rather “reform” — though he had already gone on the record as opposing them.

This one-two punch — Trump publicly scolding and Ryan publicly defending while negotiating with the rank-and-file behind the scenes, all while Ryan and the White House remained in touch — worked. By lunchtime, Republicans in the House voted unanimously on the House floor to to keep the OCE in place as is.

In some sense this is congressional procedural minutiae — but it’s worth paying attention to, for two reasons. First, public pressure can still scare a political party, even when it has solidified power over the whole government. And second, it could showcase how the Congress may work with Trump in power — Ryan and the White House working together to keep the GOP in line and away from politically dangerous shiny objects.

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