Turmoil overshadows first day of Republican-controlled Congress

WASHINGTON — The Republican-controlled Congress opened the turbulent Trump era in Washington on Tuesday, as the new Senate moved instantly to begin the repeal of President Barack Obama's signature health care law while the House descended into chaos in an ill-fated attempt to gut an independent congressional ethics office.

On a day usually reserved for pomp, constitutionally mandated procedure and small children parading around in fancy dresses, Congress instead pitched itself into partisan battles.

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan easily won re-election, but not before the embarrassment of having his members defy him by voting to eliminate the ethics office, only to then abandon that effort after a flood of criticism from constituents and Twitter messages from President-elect Donald Trump that criticized House Republican priorities.

It was a rocky start to a period in which Republicans had promised an end to Washington gridlock if they controlled both Congress and the White House. There was intraparty conflict and a sense that Trump, who ran against the Republican establishment, would continue to be openly critical of his own party at times.

As Democrats in both chambers seethed, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, unveiled the legislative language that could decimate the Affordable Care Act before the crocuses start to bloom in the spring, even if any replacement of the law could take years.

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Budget language released on Tuesday gives House and Senate committees only until Jan. 27 to produce legislation that would eliminate major parts of the health care law. Under arcane budget procedures, that legislation would be protected from a Democratic filibuster and could pass the Senate with a simple majority. And debate will begin on Wednesday, before senators have even moved into their new offices.

The dueling over the health law's fate will pull in both the departing and incoming White House administrations as well. On Wednesday, Obama will visit with congressional Democrats to plot how to resist the planned repeal, and Mike Pence, the vice president-elect, will meet with Republicans to gird them for the fight ahead.

While the Senate action showed Republicans on course to keep campaign promises, the House got off to a messy start, brought on by Republicans who had moved largely in secret on Monday to gut a congressional ethics office against Ryan's wishes.

That provoked an outcry from both Democrats and voters who flooded House offices with angry calls. "Every left-wing organization is calling my office," said Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas. "And we've told them: 'Thank you very much. We appreciate your feedback.'"

After a hastily called meeting on Tuesday morning among Republicans, the matter was dropped before it could go to the full House floor for a vote.

As the Senate moved to larger legislative matters, the House kerfuffle seemed to cast a shadow over Ryan, but he tried to brush it off. "There's no sense of foreboding in the House today," Ryan said after his re-election, "only the sense of potential."

The fight over the House rules was already acrimonious thanks to a piece of the package that would impose $2,500 in fines for filming events on the House floor, a response to Democrats who streamed their overnight sit-in over guns last June using cellphones and video cameras.

In the Senate, Vice President Joe Biden swore in seven new members and all the incumbents who won their races last year, their colleagues looking on cheerfully, as a cold rain pelted the newly refurbished Capitol dome.

Members of the House and Senate brought along their families — elderly parents with canes, small children tugging at uncomfortable lacy hems — as well as former senators and other special guests. Former Vice President Dick Cheney accompanied his daughter Liz to her swearing-in as a member of the House from Wyoming.

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Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York officially became the Democratic leader and quickly warned Republicans that the minority would be vocal, if not operatic, in resisting much of their agenda and many of Trump's nominees.

"It is our job to do what's best for the American people, the middle class and those struggling to get there," he said. "If the president-elect proposes legislation on issues like infrastructure, trade and closing the carried interest loophole, for instance, we will work in good faith to perfect and, potentially, enact it. When he doesn't, we will resist."

He added, "If President-elect Trump lets the hard-right members of Congress and his Cabinet run the show, if he adopts their timeworn policies — which benefit the elites, the special interests and corporate America, not the working man and woman — his presidency will not succeed."

On Tuesday, the House also adopted rules clearing the way for legislation to roll back the health care law.

The budget blueprint introduced on Tuesday in the Senate is not sent to the president and does not become law, but still clears the way for legislation that Republicans say will repeal major provisions of the Affordable Care Act.

Republicans bypassed the Budget Committee so they could immediately bring the measure to the floor. Such resolutions are normally developed after weeks of work in the Budget Committee.

Under the plan, four congressional committees — two in the House and two in the Senate — have until Jan. 27 to develop legislation that will be the vehicle for repealing the health care law.

The document does not specify which provisions of the law may be eliminated and which ones may be preserved. Nor does it specify or even suggest how Republicans would replace the Affordable Care Act, which the Obama administration says has provided coverage to some 20 million people who were previously uninsured.

Republicans have said they may delay the effective date of a repeal bill, to avoid disrupting coverage for people who have it and to provide time for Republicans to develop alternatives to the 2010 health law.

The budget blueprint allows Republicans to use savings from repealing major provisions of that law to help offset the cost of future, unspecified measures to help people obtain coverage.

"Americans face skyrocketing premiums and soaring deductibles," said Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., chairman of the Senate Budget Committee. "Insurers are withdrawing from markets across the country, leaving many families with fewer choices and less access to care than they had before — the opposite of what the law promised."

The American Medical Association urged Congress on Tuesday to explain how it would replace the Affordable Care Act. "Before any action is taken through reconciliation or other means that would potentially alter coverage, policymakers should lay out for the American people, in reasonable detail, what will replace current policies," the chief executive of the association, Dr. James L. Madara, said in a letter to congressional leaders.

Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, who engineered the House passage of the law in 2010, promised this week that Democrats would be just as aggressive in fighting its repeal.

Republicans have said they may delay legislation to replace the health law for several years. Pelosi said that such a delay would be "an act of cowardice on the part of Republicans," and that "they don't even have the votes to do it" because they have not agreed on a replacement plan.

At the same time, Democrats prepared for battle over Trump's Cabinet nominees. Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the highest-ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, has written to Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the committee chairman, asking to postpone the first confirmation hearing, set for next week for Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, whom Trump has chosen as attorney general.