House approves ethics, election reform

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and House Democrats rally ahead of passage of H.R. 1, “The For the People Act,” at the Capitol in Washington, Friday. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

The Democratic-controlled House has approved legislation aimed at reducing the role of big money in politics, ensuring fair elections and strengthening ethics standards. But it stands little chance in the Republican-run Senate.

The House measure would make it easier to register and vote, and would tighten election security and require presidential candidates to disclose their tax returns.

Election Day would become a holiday for federal workers, and a public financing system for congressional campaigns would be set up. The legislation approved 234-193 would bar voter roll purges such as those seen in Georgia, Ohio and elsewhere, and restore voting rights for ex-prisoners.

Republicans call it a Democratic power grab that amounts to a federal takeover of elections.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says it’s dead on arrival in that chamber.

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House Democrats: Trump clearly obstructed justice

Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., questions Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker as he appears before the House Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File)

Declaring it’s “very clear” President Donald Trump obstructed justice, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, says the panel is requesting documents Monday from more than 60 people from Trump’s administration, family and business as part of a rapidly expanding Russia investigation.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., said the House Judiciary Committee wants to review documents from the Justice Department, the president’s son Donald Trump Jr. and Trump Organization chief financial officer Allen Weisselberg. Former White House chief of staff John Kelly and former White House counsel Don McGahn also are likely targets, he said.

“We are going to initiate investigations into abuses of power, into corruption and into obstruction of justice,” Nadler said. “We will do everything we can to get that evidence.”

Asked if he believed Trump obstructed justice, Nadler said, “Yes, I do.”

Nadler isn’t calling the inquiry an impeachment investigation but said House Democrats, now in the majority, are simply doing “our job to protect the rule of law” after Republicans during the first two years of Trump’s term were “shielding the president from any proper accountability.”

“We’re far from making decisions” about impeachment, he said.

In a tweet on Sunday, Trump blasted anew the Russia investigation, calling it a partisan probe unfairly aimed at discrediting his win in the 2016 presidential election. “I am an innocent man being persecuted by some very bad, conflicted & corrupt people in a Witch Hunt that is illegal & should never have been allowed to start – And only because I won the Election!” he wrote.

Nadler’s comments follow a bad political week for Trump. He emerged empty-handed from a high-profile summit with North Korea leader Kim Jong Un on denuclearization and Trump’s former personal attorney, Michael Cohen, in three days of congressional testimony, publicly characterized the president as a “con man” and “cheat.”

Newly empowered House Democrats are flexing their strength with blossoming investigations. A half-dozen House committees are now probing alleged coordination between Trump associates and Russia’s efforts to sway the 2016 election, Trump’s tax returns and possible conflicts of interest involving the Trump family business and policy-making. The House oversight committee, for instance, has set a Monday deadline for the White House to turn over documents related to security clearances after The New York Times reported that the president ordered officials to grant his son-in-law Jared Kushner’s clearance over the objections of national security officials.

Nadler’s added lines of inquiry also come as special counsel Robert Mueller is believed to be wrapping up his work into possible questions of Trump campaign collusion and obstruction in the Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election. In his testimony, Cohen acknowledged he did not witness or know directly of collusion between Trump aides and Russia but had his “suspicions.”

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., on Sunday accused House Democrats of prejudging Trump as part of a query based purely on partisan politics.

“I think Congressman Nadler decided to impeach the president the day the president won the election,” McCarthy said. “Listen to exactly what he said. He talks about impeachment before he even became chairman and then he says, ‘you’ve got to persuade people to get there.’ There’s nothing that the president did wrong.”

“Show me where the president did anything to be impeached…Nadler is setting the framework now that the Democrats are not to believe the Mueller report,” he said.

Nadler said Sunday his committee will seek to review the Mueller report but stressed the investigation “goes far beyond collusion.”

He pointed to what he considered several instances of obstruction of justice by the president, including the “1,100 times he referred to the Mueller investigation as a ‘witch hunt’” as well Trump’s abrupt firing of FBI director James Comey in 2017. According to Comey, Trump had encouraged the then-FBI director to drop an investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn. Trump has denied he told Comey to end the Flynn probe.

“It’s very clear that the president obstructed justice,” Nadler said.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has kept calls for impeachment at bay by insisting that Mueller first must be allowed to finish his work, and present his findings publicly — though it’s unclear whether the White House will allow its full release.

Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., who chairs the House intelligence committee, on Sunday also stressed that it’s too early to make judgments about impeachment.

“That is something that we will have to await Bob Mueller’s report and the underlying evidence to determine. We will also have to look at the whole body of improper and criminal actions by the president including those campaign finance crimes to determine whether they rise to the level of removal from office,” Schiff said.

Nadler and McCarthy spoke on ABC’s “This Week,” and Schiff appeared on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”

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Associated Press writer Mary Clare Jalonick contributed to this report.

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Dems double down on the job of governing

Man wears an unloaded pistol during a pro gun-rights rally in Austin, Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

A House committee will hold its first hearing on gun violence in years. Two others will gavel in to address climate change. And three more will debate protecting pre-existing health conditions and the Affordable Care Act.

That’s before noon on Wednesday.

After eight years in the minority, House Democrats are about to uncork their bottled-up legislative energy. The agenda goes beyond oversight of President Donald Trump’s administration and Russian election interference to the bread-and-butter issues of jobs, health care and the economy. Far from the House floor, the grunt work of governing will play out in the confines of the committee rooms, on the day after Trump’s State of the Union address.

“We have a lot of work to do,” said Rep. Katherine Clark, D-Mass., a member of party leadership.

House Democrats got off to a rough start in the new Congress as the 35-day government shutdown jammed the agenda, frustrating some lawmakers and halting the energetic freshmen class that swept to power in the midterm election.

With the longest government closure over, for now, the new House majority is eager to deliver on its promises before the next election shifts attention yet again.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi made a calculation after the midterm election to forego a traditional 100-days agenda — or the 100-hours to-do list she rolled out in 2007, the last time Democrats had the majority — in favor of a return to the legislative process.

It’s partly a nod to the diverse majority whose members hold different views on some issues. But it’s also a part of Democrats’ efforts to revive traditional governing, rather than lurching from crisis to crisis, as had become the norm when Republicans were unable to control their often unruly conservative flank. Under new House rules, every bill must pass through committee before coming to a vote on the floor.

They may not want to put it this way, but House Democrats are trying to make Congress great again.

James Curry, an associate professor of political science at the University of Utah, said Democrats have a short window to capture the public’s attention. “They want to show voters they can legislate, they can run the government, they can do the things they said they’re going to do,” he said.

“Reality,” Curry added, “is obviously more complicated than that.”

Much of the House’s legislative product will fall flat in the Senate, where Republicans retain majority control, and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is expected to ensure his chamber serves as a backstop to prevent Democratic bills from landing on Trump’s desk.

In some ways, the prospect of divided government frees up Democrats to simply pass the bills they prefer, without much interest in the bipartisanship that would be needed for Trump to sign them into law.

The more likely result is that the legislative agenda sets the stage for the next election, in 2020, when voters will be assessing not only the performance of the new majority but also which party they prefer in the White House.

This month, Democrats expect to pass H.R. 1, a sweeping reform of campaign finance and voting rights laws, and then turn to legislation to expand background checks for sales and transfers of firearms.

In announcing the first gun-violence hearing for the House Judiciary Committee in at least eight years, Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., said that “for far too long, Republicans in Congress have offered moments of silence instead of action in the wake of gun tragedies. That era is over.”

Several committees have posted videos ahead of their hearings in movie-like trailers to the coming action.

Rep. Raul Grijalva of Arizona, the chairman of the Natural Resources Committee, promised a month of hearings on climate change — the first sustained look at the topic for his panel since 2009.

“What we have not seen from this committee in a decade-plus is attention to climate change,” Grijalva said, alongside video clips of Trump calling climate change a “hoax.” ″On the contrary. We’ve seen a pattern of denial.”

As other lawmakers, including some newly elected freshmen, join on screen, Grijalva says, “Now we’re at a point with this new majority that that is going to change.”

The Foreign Affairs Committee will debate the war in Yemen, and consider a war powers resolution to halt U.S. involvement in the Saudi-led coalition.

The Energy and Commerce Committee is among several panels delving into health care and also climate change. The Oversight Committee will hold a hearing Wednesday on ethics in the executive branch. And the Appropriations Committee will hold a hearing taking stock of the recent government shutdown.

Next week’s agenda is shaping up to be almost as full.

Pelosi said in a letter to colleagues this week that the committees are “moving forward.” She noted that 18 freshmen have been named chairs of subcommittees. The last time Democrats welcomed such a big class of freshmen, the Watergate class of 1974, no freshmen had such assignments.

Curry said the robust committee strategy serves a purpose for leaders, too. “Why not open the process up a little bit and let everybody express themselves?” he said. “It’s a nice way to give everybody something to do.”

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Associated Press writer Matthew Daly contributed to this report.

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Speaker Pelosi declares ‘a new dawn’ in House

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California holds the gavel after at the Capitol. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Cheering Democrats returned Nancy Pelosi to the House speaker’s post Thursday as the 116th Congress ushered in a historically diverse freshman class eager to confront President Donald Trump in a new era of divided government.

Pelosi, elected speaker 220-192, took the gavel saying U.S. voters “demanded a new dawn” in the November election that swept the Democrats to a House majority and are looking to “the beauty of our Constitution” to provide checks and balances on power. She faced 15 dissenting votes from fellow Democrats.

For a few hours, the promise of a new era was the order of the day. The new speaker invited scores of lawmakers’ kids to join her on the dais as she was sworn in, calling the House to order “on behalf of all of America’s children.”

Even Trump congratulated her during a rare appearance at the White House briefing room, saying her election by House colleagues was “a tremendous, tremendous achievement.” The president has tangled often with Pelosi and is sure to do so again with Democrats controlling the House, but he said, “I think it’ll be a little bit different than a lot of people are thinking.”

As night fell, the House quickly got to work on the partial government shutdown, which was winding up Day 13 with Trump demanding billions in Mexican border wall funding to bring it to an end. Democrats approved legislation to re-open the government — but without the $5.6 billion in wall money, which means it has no chance in the Republican Senate.

The new Congress is like none other. There are more women than ever before, and a new generation of Muslims, Latinos, Native Americans and African-Americans is creating a House more aligned with the population of the United States. However, the Republican side in the House is still made up mostly of white men, and in the Senate Republicans bolstered their ranks in the majority.

In a nod to the moment, Pelosi, the first female speaker who reclaimed the post she lost to the GOP in 2011, broadly pledged to make Congress work for all Americans — addressing kitchen table issues at a time of deep economic churn — even as her party readies to challenge Trump with investigations and subpoena powers that threaten the White House agenda.

Pelosi promised to “restore integrity to government” and outlined an agenda “to lower health costs and prescription drug prices and protect people with pre-existing medical conditions; to increase paychecks by rebuilding America with green and modern infrastructure from sea to shining sea.”

The day unfolded as one of both celebration and impatience. Newly elected lawmakers arrived, often with friends and families in tow, to take the oath of office and pose for ceremonial photos. Then they swiftly turned to the shutdown.

Vice President Mike Pence swore in newly elected senators, but Senate Republicans under Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had no plans to consider the House bills unless Trump agreed to sign them into law. That ensured the shutdown would continue, clouding the first days of the new session.

McConnell said that Republicans have shown the Senate is “fertile soil for big, bipartisan accomplishments,” but that the question is whether House Democrats will engage in “good governance or political performance art.”

It’s a time of stark national political division that some analysts say is on par with the Civil War era. Battle lines are drawn not just between Democrats and Republicans but within the parties themselves, splintered by their left and right flanks.

Pelosi defied history in returning to the speaker’s office after eight years in the minority, overcoming internal opposition from Democrats demanding a new generation of leaders. She will be the first to regain the gavel since Sam Rayburn of Texas in 1955.

Putting Pelosi’s name forward for nomination, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York, the incoming Democratic caucus chair, recounted her previous accomplishments — passing the Affordable Care Act, helping the country out of the Great Recession — as preludes to her next ones. He called her leadership “unparalleled in modern American history.”

One Democrat, Rep. Brenda Lawrence of Michigan, cast her vote for Pelosi “on the shoulders of women who marched 100 years ago” for women’s suffrage. Newly elected Rep. Lucy McBath of Georgia, an anti-gun violence advocate, dedicated hers to her slain teenage son, Jordan Davis.

As speaker, Pelosi will face challenges from the party’s robust wing of liberal newcomers, including 29-year-old New Yorker Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who has risen to such prominence she is already known around the Capitol — and on her prolific social media accounts — by the nickname “AOC.” California Rep. Brad Sherman introduced articles of impeachment against Trump, though for now the measures are largely symbolic.

Republicans face their own internal battles as they decide how closely to tie their political fortunes to Trump. House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy’s name was put into nomination for speaker by his party’s caucus chair, Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the daughter of the former vice president. He faced six “no” votes from his now-shrunken GOP minority.

As McCarthy passed the gavel to Pelosi he said voters wonder if Congress is “still capable” of solving problems, and said this period of divided government is “no excuse for gridlock.”

One office remains disputed as the House refused to seat Republican Mark Harris of North Carolina amid an investigation by state election officials of irregularities in absentee ballots from the November election.

Many GOP senators are up for re-election in 2020 in states where voters have mixed views of Trump’s performance in the White House.

Trump, whose own bid for 2020 already is underway, faces potential challenges from the ranks of Senate Democrats under Chuck Schumer.

The halls of the Capitol were bustling with arrivals, children in the arms of many new lawmakers. Visitor galleries included crooner Tony Bennett and rock legend Mickey Hart, both guests of Pelosi. Incoming White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, a former congressman, sat with Republican leaders.

Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., opened the House prayer asking at “a time fraught with tribalism at home and turbulence abroad” that lawmakers “become the architects of a kindlier nation.”

Overnight, Democratic Rep-elect Ilhan Omar of Minnesota tweeted a picture with her family at the airport. The House rules were being changed to allow Omar, who is Muslim, to wear a head scarf on the chamber floor. She wrote, “23 years ago, from a refugee camp in Kenya, my father and I arrived at an airport in Washington DC. Today, we return to that same airport on the eve of my swearing in as the first Somali-American in Congress.”

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Associated Press writers Jill Colvin, Matthew Daly, Alan Fram, Kevin Freking, Mary Clare Jalonick, Laurie Kellman and Zeke J. Miller contributed to this report.

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Copyright © 2018 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved