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The Latest: House bill makes VA employees more accountable

January 4, 2017 1:17 AM
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The House has approved a bill that would require all reprimands and admonishments given to Department of Veterans Affairs employees to remain in their personnel files as long as they are employed there.

The new chairman of the House Committee of Veterans Affairs, Rep. Phil Roe of Tennessee, says the legislation is designed to improve accountability.

The House passed comparable legislation in the last session of Congress, but it failed to clear the Senate.

Under current VA policy, an "admonishment" can only remain in an employee's file for two years, and a "reprimand" for three years, after which they are permanently removed.

The House has also passed a bill directing the VA secretary to take steps to ensure veterans do not receive expired or otherwise contaminated tissue from cadaver donors.

The Republican-led House has adopted, largely along party lines, its rules package for the 115th Congress, with Democrats protesting a provision that includes fines for members who use electronic devices to take pictures or video from the House floor.

The proposed fine of up to $2,500 would be docked from the salaries of offending lawmakers.

Democratic Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland likens the fine to a gag order, while Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions says the provision helps ensure decorum as lawmakers make their voices heard.

The provision comes six months after Democrats live-streamed a sit-in on the House floor to call attention to their demand for votes on gun-control bills.

The rules package also treats the disposing of federal lands as budget-neutral, which some groups contend could lead to giving away federal resources.

Rep. Diane Black is being named the interim chairman of the House Budget Committee, taking over the key panel as Rep. Tom Price looks ahead to becoming secretary of Health and Human Services in the upcoming Trump administration.

The Tennessee Republican says she'll also seek the post for the full two years of the new congressional term, assuming Price, a Georgia Republican, is confirmed by the Senate. The move by House Speaker Paul Ryan to name Black to the budget post now is a signal she's a strong favorite for a full term.

Black says the first task is "repealing Obamacare" through a budget process that avoids a Senate filibuster.

She says next year's budget promises to be "a heavy lift" because of competing demands and large budget deficits.

Former Vice President Dick Cheney was on Capitol Hill Tuesday, but he didn't want to talk politics. He was there to see his daughter, Liz Cheney, be sworn in as Wyoming's lone representative.

It's the same seat he held for 10 years before he left Congress in 1989 to be defense secretary for President George H.W. Bush.

"It's a tremendous pleasure to be here for a day like that," he said after the swearing-in. "I did the same thing 38 years ago when she was 12 years old."

Asked about the new Congress, in which Republicans will hold both chambers, he was less effusive.

House Speaker Paul Ryan says his message to the American people is that "we hear you, we will do right by you and we will deliver."

Ryan was speaking in the House chamber after winning election Tuesday to serve his first full term as speaker. Ryan says Americans have been looking to Washington for leadership but all they've gotten is condescension.

Ryan says it's time not to be timid. He says: "You can feel the winds of change."

Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi says House Democrats will seek common ground with Republicans when they can on issues such as investing in the nation's infrastructure and making sure taxes and foreign trade are fair to workers. She says Democrats will stand their ground on attempts to harm Medicare, Social Security or the Affordable Care Act.

The Obama administration is suggesting it is "rather revealing" that House Republicans planned to gut an independent congressional ethics board.

Republicans dropped plans Tuesday to neuter the independent Office of Congressional Ethics, just a day after the plan was proposed.

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said it was an attempt by the Republicans to "skirt responsibility" and predicted it would not be the last time they try to "help people in positions of power and influence escape accountability."

"That's not draining the swamp," said Earnest Tuesday, referring to President-elect Donald Trump's vow to end corruption in Washington.

Trump tweeted criticism of the GOP's plan, but it was not clear if he was only objected to the timing of unveiling the plan on the first day of the 115th Congress.

Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., has been re-elected to serve as speaker of the House of Representatives during the 115th Congress, gaining 239 votes.

Ryan, 46, will serve his first full term as speaker after succeeding John Boehner in October 2015. Tuesday's vote comes with little of the drama that accompanied Boehner's election two years ago when 25 House Republicans voted for someone other than Boehner.

Ryan will lead the GOP charge to repeal President Barack Obama's signature health insurance law and cut taxes and regulation.

Democrats nominated Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California for speaker. She received 189 votes and will serve as House minority leader. Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio gained two votes, while Reps. Jim Cooper of Tennessee, John Lewis of Georgia and Daniel Webster each gained a vote.

Senate Republicans have already introduced legislation that's a precursor to repealing much of the Affordable Care Act.

Successful passage of the measure would allow a detailed follow-up repeal bill to pass through Congress without fear of a filibuster by Senate Democrats. Tuesday's measure doesn't contain any policy language.

Repealing President Barack Obama's signature health care law is the top priority of President-elect Donald Trump and his GOP allies on Capitol Hill.

The measure directs top congressional committees to cast votes to assemble the repeal legislation by Jan. 27. That means there's no time for trying to add legislation to replace so-called Obamacare.

The measure is officially called a budget resolution. Senate debate begins this week and the House is likely to follow next week.

The Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee says confirmation hearings for Rex Tillerson, Donald Trump's pick for secretary of state, will begin next week. The hearings are expected to last two days.

Speaking with reporters Tuesday, Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee says the first session with Tillerson, the Exxon Mobile CEO, is tentatively scheduled for Jan. 11, with a follow-up hearing on the afternoon of Jan. 12.

Corker says he was meeting with Tillerson Tuesday afternoon. Corker says the committee will receive very soon a detailed financial disclosure statement from Tillerson, who worked at Exxon Mobil for 43 years.

Seven new members of the Senate joined those who won re-election in receiving the oath of office from Vice President Joe Biden. Biden is the president of the Senate until Donald Trump becomes president Jan. 20. Then Mike Pence will take over.

Each senator was joined at the dais by current and former senators. They then took their new desks and chatted with fellow lawmakers.

There are two new Republican senators and five Democrats. The Republicans are Indiana Sen. Todd Young and Louisiana Sen. John Kennedy. The Democrats are Nevada Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, Maryland Sen. Chris Van Hollen, New Hampshire Sen. Maggie Hassan, California Sen. Kamala Harris and Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth.

Duckworth, a double-amputee Iraq war vet, walked to the dais and stood for the oath.

Former Vice President Dick Cheney and former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta are among those attending the opening session of the 115th Congress.

Cheney's daughter, Liz Cheney, was sworn in Tuesday to Wyoming's lone House seat, which her father also held before becoming defense secretary and later vice president.

Panetta's son Jimmy Panetta captured a California seat once held by his father, who later became CIA director and defense secretary.

House Republicans have dropped plans to gut the independent ethics office after widespread criticism and questions from President-elect Donald Trump about GOP priorities.

In a reversal, the House GOP decided on Tuesday to strip the provision from a package of rule changes that lawmakers will vote on later in the day.

Said Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma: "People didn't want this story on opening day."

The 115th Congress has been gaveled into session. The House convened at noon Tuesday, with 241 Republicans and 194 Democrats. Among the members are 52 freshmen.

Lawmakers will soon vote on who will serve as House speaker with Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., expected to win his first full term as speaker. They will then participate in a swearing-in ceremony.

The festive opening included dozens of children, dressed in their Sunday finest, sitting in the House chamber to watch the ceremony. Among the guests were former Vice President Dick Cheney, who is watching his daughter Liz, take the oath of office as the representative for Wyoming.

Republicans are focused on repealing President Barack Obama's signature health insurance law, rolling back regulations and cutting taxes. They'll have an easier go of it in the House, with Democrats looking to the Senate to block legislation they view as unpalatable.

A coalition of government watchdogs and scholars is expressing concern about a vote by House Republicans to gut the independent Office of Congressional Ethics.

The groups, including Common Cause, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and Judicial Watch, say in a letter to House leaders that the ethics office has strengthened congressional accountability since its creation in 2008.

The letter says the ethics office "has helped change a secretive and oft-perceived moribund ethics enforcement process" into one that is more accountable, active and bipartisan.

The letter comes after GOP House members voted behind closed doors Monday to give lawmakers themselves ultimate control over the ethics office, which was created after several bribery and corruption scandals sent lawmakers to prison.

Scholars including Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann also signed the letter.

President-elect Donald Trump is questioning the move by House Republicans to gut the Office of Congressional Ethics, arguing that tax reform and health care should be higher priorities.

In two tweets on Tuesday, Trump reacted to the closed-door vote of Republicans to put the independent OCE under the auspices of the lawmaker-run House Ethics Committee.

Trump's first tweet said, "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."

He followed up with a second that said. "Focus on tax reform, healthcare and so many other things of far greater importance! #DTS"

Senior House Republicans say a vote is scheduled for Thursday on a measure that reaffirms U.S. support for Israel after the Obama administration refused to veto a United Nations resolution criticizing the Middle East ally on settlements.

Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Rep. Ed Royce, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement that the administration "has lost all credibility when it comes to Israel."

Secretary of State John Kerry said in a speech last month that the U.S. was standing up for a two-state solution when it abstained on the resolution, which declares the settlements on the West Bank and east Jerusalem a violation of international law.

McCarthy and Royce called the abstention a "stunt" that "hurt our ally Israel and made peace in the region even more difficult to achieve."

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer is pledging to hold President-elect Donald Trump and congressional Republicans to account — and warning against a "Twitter presidency."

The New Yorker says Senate Democrats will hold Trump to his promise to "Make America Great Again" — as long as that means creating jobs, raising incomes, giving real opportunities to the disadvantaged and protecting civil rights.

But Schumer says, "We'll fight him tooth and nail when he appeals to the baser instincts that diminish America and its greatness."

The newly elevated Senate Democratic leader says the issues confronting America are so complex that "we cannot tweet them away."

Schumer's comments come in prepared remarks he is delivering later Tuesday as Congress convenes for its first session of 2017.

Members of the 115th Congress will be sworn in at noon Tuesday, setting off an aggressive campaign by Republicans who control the House and Senate to dismantle eight years of President Barack Obama's Democratic policies.

The first and biggest target is Obama's health care law, which Republicans have long sought to gut and blamed as a primary cause for a lackluster economic recovery. But decades-old programs that millions of Americans rely on every day, such as Social Security and Medicare, also will be in the crosshairs as congressional Republicans seek to shrink both the size of the federal budget and the bureaucracy in Washington.

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican, says that "we have a lot to do — and a lot to undo."


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