NASHVILLE — U.S. House Republicans from Tennessee, Georgia and other states began the first day of the 115th Congress on Tuesday with an embarrassing stumble after GOP members' plan to hamstring the chamber's independent ethics office imploded, the victim at least in part due to two critical tweets from their own President-elect, Republican Donald Trump.
By day's end, GOP members reversed their Monday night vote in a closed-door conference and came to the House floor with a rules package minus the plan to strip a number of powers from the Office of Congressional Ethics.
The office was created in 2008 after scandals erupted, ultimately sending three House lawmakers to jail.
Early Tuesday morning, before the growing public backlash, as well as Trump's reaction, Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., defended the move during an appearance on CNN. Blackburn argued it would help guarantee due process for lawmakers through eliminating the use of anonymous tips against them and the regular House Ethics Committee can handle complaints.
"If someone is being accused of something, let somebody know who is accusing them," Blackburn said. That would provide "individuals the opportunity to have some due recourse and to know who is accusing them, which is not something that individuals have known, and members of both conferences have wanted to see this type [of] transparency brought to the office."
With massive news coverage of the secret House Republican Conference vote and Democrats taking the offense, Trump weighed in with two tweets that struck like lightning bolts.
"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 said in the tweets.
Efforts to learn how Reps. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., and Scott DesJarlais, R-Tenn., voted on the independent ethics panel in the GOP were unsuccessful. The vote later was reversed and the proposal dropped from the rules package.
In other developments on what Republicans see as a new era of unified government once Trump takes office on Jan. 20 and the House and Senate are under GOP control, U.S. Rep. Diane Black, R-Tenn., was named the House Budget Committee's interim chairman.
The Gallatin, Tenn., lawmaker vowed to work to repeal the Affordable Care Act, often called Obamacare, and implement "free market" health care solutions. Black will replace current Chairman Tom Price, R-Ga., who is Trump's pick to become Health and Human Services secretary and will soon come up for Senate confirmation hearings.
Meanwhile, U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., tweeted that he spent part of his day meeting with Rex Tillerson, Trump's expected nominee for secretary of state, a position that Corker himself had been in contention for at one point.
"Enjoyed a wide-ranging discussion with Rex Tillerson this afternoon and am looking forward to chairing his confirmation hearing next week," Corker said in his tweet.
Fleischmann, who lives in Ooltewah, was sworn in for a fourth House term. He will continue serving on the House Appropriations Committee.
"This new Congress gives us the opportunity for responsible, conservative solutions for hard-working Americans," Fleischmann said in a statement.
In taking his oath of office for another term, U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., made history as the first Georgia Republican to be sworn in to a third Senate term.
He said he looks forward to working with Trump's administration and "my colleagues on both sides of the aisle in the days ahead to advance the ideals that make our American democracy great and to get the best results for Georgia and America."
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