AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Today the story on Capitol Hill was supposed to be about the new era of total Republican control in Washington, but before the new Congress began, there was fresh drama in the House, where party leaders were overruled. Lawmakers were divided. And President-elect Donald Trump was tweeting in opposition to his own party.
This all came about after House Republicans initially voted late last night to weaken an independent body that investigates ethics complaints against House lawmakers. House speaker Paul Ryan opposed it, but a majority of House Republicans passed it anyway. Then in less than 24 hours, Republicans were forced to reverse course and withdraw the proposal. They say they'll try again later this year.
NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis is here to explain all of this back and forth. Susan, can you hear me?
SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Hey, Audie.
CORNISH: So why did Republicans all of a sudden back away from this proposed ethics change?
DAVIS: Well, they faced a sudden and swift backlash. One, they heard it from their constituents who were calling them and saying they thought this was a bad idea. There was almost unanimous opposition from outside watchdogs, both liberal and conservative, saying they didn't want to see this happen. And then you had the president-elect weigh in and say, you know, while he may have some issues with the process, he thinks there is much better things Republicans should be spending their time on.
So while the substance of this is still something that a lot of Republicans want to have a conversation about and arguably some Democrats do, too, the optics of doing something like this on the first day of a new Congress with an incoming president who has promised to, quote, "drain the swamp" - it just did not fly.
And it became pretty clear by late morning that if they were going to try and pursue it, they would not have the votes for it on the floor, and that would have been pretty embarrassing for Republicans.
CORNISH: So what was the thinking from the lawmakers who wanted to change it? I mean you described essentially a kind of bipartisan backlash.
DAVIS: Right, you know, and I think that's part of the reason why it's kind of hard to explain this - 'cause it just at this face comes across as saying they're rolling back ethics rules. And the proposal was from Bob Goodlatte. He's a Republican from Virginia. And part of his concern is that the outside - this independent body, the Office of Congressional Ethics, has an ability to take up anonymous complaints against members of Congress. And part of this would have made it - banned those anonymous complaints.
And their part was, in any other normal court proceeding, you have a due process right that allows you to confront your accuser and no more information. And it also sometimes can cost members a lot of legal fees to defend themselves against complaints from unknown sources.
And so there was also an issue of whether this is redundant to the House Ethics Committee, which is a bipartisan committee that also looks at some of these issues. The difference is the House Ethics Committee can only take complaints from members. The outside group could take complaints from members of the public. So by limiting that and potentially putting it under the oversight of the Ethics Committee, it was generally seen as undermining the independence of this group.
CORNISH: Now, Donald Trump in his tweet about this did use the word unfair to describe the Office of Congressional Ethics. But what is it that ultimately changed their minds?
DAVIS: Well, you know, Republicans say that is not the reason, that Trump's tweet was not the reason they did it. But I talked to many lawmakers who were in the room when they decided to reverse course who said their party leaders, including House Speaker Paul Ryan and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said, look; if this is not a priority for our president-elect, it should not be a priority for us right now.
What they say they're going to do is they're going to direct the House Ethics Committee - again, bipartisan committee, evenly split between five Republicans and five Democrats - to look at this issue, to look at the OCE and to see if they have any recommendations on how to change the system and report back to the House later this year.
Historically and customarily, when there's any changes to the ethics process, it has tended to be done in a bipartisan fashion to eliminate this kind of, you know, fight and drama we saw today.
CORNISH: In the meantime, does this tell us anything about Republicans in Congress and Trump?
DAVIS: Well, I think it tells us that Trump is absolutely going to be willing to criticize his own party when he sees fit and probably on Twitter. You know, I also talked to a lot of Republicans who said maybe this will teach some of the rank and file to put a little bit more trust into party leaders like Paul Ryan who warn them not to do things when they're a bad idea. And maybe going down the line, they might listen to them a little bit more closely.
CORNISH: NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis, thanks.
DAVIS: Thanks, Audie.
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