Congressional Republicans faced a bipartisan backlash on Tuesday over a proposal to weaken ethics oversight as the new session began with two new Maryland Democrats in the House and another elevated to the Senate.
In a day usually consumed by ceremony and ritual, the 115th Congress began instead with a struggle over GOP plans to gut an independent House ethics office. The idea was abruptly abandoned following criticism from President-elect Donald Trump and a flood of calls by constituents to lawmakers — underscoring the delicate politics the GOP now faces with its hand on the helm of power.
The machinations also demonstrated the environment in which Maryland's new lawmakers now find themselves: Members of a minority party caught up in a sometimes shifting GOP agenda that broadly includes dismantling the 2010 Affordable Care Act and shredding federal regulations that Republicans say stymie economic growth.
"We're off on a very divisive ideological note," said Sen. Chris Van Hollen after being sworn in by Vice President Joe Biden — marking the first day his predecessor, Barbara A. Mikulski, has not represented Maryland in Washington since 1977.
"We should have started on something that brings Americans together, like modernizing infrastructure," said Van Hollen, who previously served seven terms in the House before winning the state's high-profile Senate race last fall.
Republican leaders, who will have full control of Washington for the first time in a decade when Trump becomes president Jan. 20, said voters gave them that power for a reason.
They also said they intend to deliver on their campaign promises. The Senate took initial steps Tuesday to begin the repeal of President Barack Obama's health care law, even as lawmakers continue debate how to handle some 20 million Americans who now have health insurance because of it.
"The people have given us unified government. And it wasn't because they were feeling generous. It's because they wanted results," Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin said on the House floor after securing another term as speaker. "How could we live with ourselves if we let them down? How could we let ourselves down?"
Contributing to the most significant turnover in Maryland's 10-member congressional delegation since 2003, Reps. Anthony G. Brown of Prince George's County — a former lieutenant governor — and Jamie Raskin of Montgomery County took the oath of office in a House chamber still filled with rancor over the GOP rules package.
"It's a whirlwind," said Brown as he speed-walked from the Capitol to his office in the Longworth House Office Building. "It was a good day for pomp and circumstance, to celebrate democracy, but a little bit more contentious than I thought it might have been."
Brown and Raskin spent much of the day on the floor as the House ran through a series of mostly symbolic votes. They huddled briefly with Rep. Steny Hoyer of Southern Maryland, the No. 2 Democrat in the House, and Rep. John Sarbanes of Baltimore County.
Brown, 55, will represent portions of Prince George's and Anne Arundel counties. Raskin, 54, will have portions of Montgomery, Frederick and Carroll counties,
The first day of the new Congress was festive, with families of lawmakers filling hallways and elevators and trying to find their way around the massive Capitol complex. Many, including Brown and Raskin, held receptions nearby to meet with supporters.
Van Hollen and Biden joked during a ceremonial swearing-in about how the lawmaker helped the vice president prepare for the 2012 vice presidential debate by playing the part of Ryan, who was then Mitt Romney's running mate.
The new House will number 241 Republicans and 194 Democrats. The Senate will have 52 Republicans and 48 Democrats.
But as House Republicans embarked on the first of what is likely to be an intense few weeks, they became mired in controversy over the chamber's rules. Their initial proposal would have prohibited the independent Office of Congressional Ethics from investigating anonymous tips or referring investigations to prosecutors without the consent of the House Ethics Committee, which is made up of lawmakers.
The independent office was created in 2008 partly in response to the Jack Abramoff scandal, in which lobbyists for Native American gambling interests were accused of not only defrauding their clients by giving illegal gifts and campaign contributions to several congressmen.
The measure drew quick rebuke from Democrats and good government groups. But it was a tweet Tuesday morning from Trump, who campaigned on a promise of "draining the swamp" in Washington, that appeared to weaken Republican support.
"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," Trump tweeted. "Focus on tax reform, health care and so many other things of far greater importance!"
Republican leaders called an emergency meeting and removed the changes. The revised package was approved 234-193, mostly along party lines.
Rep. Andy Harris of Baltimore County, Maryland's only Republican in Congress, supports making changes to the ethics office but said they should be negotiated with Democrats. A spokesman declined to say, specifically, whether Harris had supported the original rules before GOP leaders withdrew the ethics provisions.
"I support letting the Ethics Committee make the necessary changes... that would no longer allow anonymous charges (you can face your accuser) and would establish due process for those accused," Harris said in a statement. "These changes will be worked out on a bipartisan basis and restore Constitutional standards, which is necessary because the complaints often allege illegal criminal activity that is subsequently found to be baseless."
Raskin called attention to another provision in the rules he said is particularly worrying for Maryland. That measure would make it easier for lawmakers to cut the size of a federal department's workforce, and also reduce salaries.
Because of its proximity to Washington, Maryland is home to more than 300,000 federal employees. Raskin said nearly a third of those workers live in his district.
"This is turning the clock back in a big way," Raskin said. "I am not going to roll over and let them undermine the civil service protections that have been built up over the course of a century."