POLITICS

McCarthy's secret deal, George Santos, Biden and Trump docs, abortion prompt fiery debate in new Congress

WASHINGTON – The new Congress is off to a fiery start, wasting no time before diving into heated debates about the "secret deal" that helped Speaker Kevin McCarthy win after 15 rounds of voting, embattled Republican Rep. George Santos and former President Donald Trump and President Joe Biden's handling of classified documents

Those faceoffs come on top of the other more routine debates between Republicans and Democrats in Congress, who often disagree on government spending, the debt ceiling and abortion. 

Here are the main points of contention:

McCarthy's 'secret deal'

U.S. House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., talks to Rep.-elect Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., in the House Chamber during the fourth day of elections for Speaker of the House at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 06, 2023.

Democrats used much of their weekly news conference Tuesday to rail against Republican leadership for chaos, confusion and a "secret deal" McCarthy cut with conservative hard-liners to secure the speakership. 

Criticism has also been raised publicly by some members of his own party, including from Reps. Tony Gonzales of Texas and Nancy Mace of South Carolina. 

Some of McCarthy's concessions were in the rules package that passed Monday night. Other agreements were part of a handshake deal. 

"There's still some questions that I think many of us have about what side deals may or may not have been made, what promises are made, what handshakes are made," Mace said to reporters. 

House Majority Leader Steve Scalise, R-La., said in a news conference Tuesday morning that McCarthy "laid that out today to the membership" during a Republican meeting. He said some things, such as which members will serve on committees, haven't been decided yet. That's the work of the Steering Committee.

Meanwhile, Democrats say McCarthy offering concessions to conservative hard-liners puts government spending – and transparency – at risk. 

In a floor speech on Monday and on Twitter, Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., said McCarthy's speakership is weaker because of it. 

"Speaker McCarthy may have the gavel, but he gave the election deniers and MAGA extremists all the power," he said.

How the GOP got here:The rise of ultra conservatives from Barry Goldwater to Donald Trump

What's happening with George Santos?

Rep.-elect George Santos, R-N.Y., sits in the House chamber for the fifth ballot as the House meets for a second day to elect a speaker.

Two New York Democrats, Reps. Ritchie Torres and Dan Goldman,  filed a formal complaint Tuesday with the House Ethics Committee accusing Santos of violating the Ethics in Government Act, saying he must be held accountable for "defrauding both Congress and the public."

That's on top of a Federal Election Commission complaint that accuses Santos of illegally using campaign money for personal expenses.

Santos told reporters Tuesday, "I have done nothing unethical."

There should be repercussions for Santos' apparent lies, but he probably won't face any consequences in the House, according to Rep. Pete Aguilar, D-Calif., who said McCarthy needed Santos' vote to win the speaker's seat.

"Kevin McCarthy owns George Santos, lock, stock and barrel," Aguilar said. "The only reason why he was seated is to give George Santos that ability to vote for Kevin McCarthy."

Republicans say the matter is "being handled internally."

"Obviously there were concerns about what we had heard, and so we're going to have to sit down and talk to him about it, and that's something that we're going to deal with," Scalise said Tuesday. 

Closer look:What can Congress do about Rep.-elect George Santos, who lied ahead of winning his election?

Biden, Trump and classified docs

President Joe Biden speaks about border security in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Thursday, Jan. 5, 2023, in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky) ORG XMIT: DCPS101

Republicans and Democrats faced questions Monday evening and all day Tuesday after the parties tried to find similarities and differences in the way classified documents were handled by Joe Biden after he was vice president and Donald Trump after he was president

Reports Monday showed less than a dozen classified documents were found in a locked closet in Biden's former private office at the University of Pennsylvania, where he was a visiting professor. The reports come five months after a search at Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate when more than 100 classified documents were found by FBI agents.

A key difference is that Biden is cooperating with federal authorities and the National Archives. Trump did not, according to authorities, and is being investigated for possible obstruction of justice. 

Rep. Mike Turner, an Ohio Republican and House Intelligence Committee chair, called for an "immediate review and damage assessment" in a letter Tuesday to national intelligence director Avril Haines.

Turner is seeking more information on documents marked "sensitive compartmented information," which he said is "the highest classification and most sensitive intelligence information in our government."

Democrats said there are many differences between Trump's handling of classified documents and Biden's handling of them, especially that Biden has cooperated with  investigators.

"There is a process to handling documents," Aguilar said. "The president is handling it the way he should."

President Joe Biden classified documents:What we know and how discovery compares to Trump

Who's on House committees, and who's ousted?

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., takes a selfie with the newly elected House Speaker Kevin McCarthy on Jan. 6, 2023.

The first big bipartisan win for McCarthy also has been a source of contention: committees and who will – and won't – serve on them. 

House members created a Select Committee on U.S. Competition with China by a 365-65 vote Tuesday afternoon. One hundred forty-six Democrats joined Republicans in the vote, giving McCarthy his first bipartisan victory. 

But a vote right after that to create a "weaponization of government" subcommittee was decided along party lines, 221-211. 

Republicans say the committee, which will review ongoing investigations within the FBI,  the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security, is necessary to stop what they describe as a politicization of federal agencies. 

Democrats are calling it the "tin foil hat committee," said Aguilar, who added that it is born of conspiracy theories. 

Committees have been a point of contention this week for Democrats and Republicans as McCarthy has vowed to remove three members and restore two. 

Republican leadership is moving to prevent at least three Democrats from serving on any committees. McCarthy told reporters he intends to remove Democratic Reps. Ilhan Omar, Adam Schiff and Eric Swalwell from committees. 

Meanwhile, he intends to restore Reps. Paul Gosar and Marjorie Taylor Greene to committee seats.

Gosar was censured and removed from committees in November 2021 after posting an animated video that depicted violence against Biden and the killing of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y. He was stripped of his seats on the Natural Resources and Oversight & Reform committees. 

Greene was removed in February 2021 when her prior embrace of QAnon conspiracy theories came to light, including past comments that 9/11 didn't happen. She was ousted from seats on the Budget Committee as well as the Education and Labor panel.

McCarthy also intends to seat embattled Republican freshman Santos. 

Investigating the investigators:GOP creates panels to probe DOJ, China

Top priorities

Republicans have largely been focused on messaging votes in their first acts of business, moving bills on abortion and plans to defund a plan to add 87,000 IRS workers

All these measures are highly likely to fail in a Democrat-led Senate and be rejected by the White House. 

Another priority for Republicans, which will see a lot of debate this year, is cutting federal spending. 

Speaking about the debt ceiling, Scalise warned Tuesday that the nation's credit card is at its limit and that Republicans believe a cycle of raising the limit and maxing it out is the wrong move. 

"Shouldn't we have an honest conversation about how to start living within our means, how to make sure we're not spending money that we don't have before that comes up?" Scalise said. 

Democrat Brendan Boyle of Pennsylvania, the ranking member of the Budget Committee, called it hypocrisy.  

"You can always tell when there's a Democrat in the White House; our Republican colleagues suddenly become concerned again about deficit and debt," he said. "When there's a Republican in the White House, they conveniently forget that topic."

Candy Woodall is a Congress reporter for USA TODAY. She can be reached at cwoodall@usatoday.com or on Twitter at @candynotcandace.