House Republicans hold first hearings to kick off probes

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House Republicans kicked off their long-promised investigations into the Biden administration on Wednesday with hearings on border issues and pandemic spending, laying out their case and providing a likely preview of the next two years.

Democrats also had the opportunity to demonstrate how aggressive they plan to be in responding to the GOP-led investigations.

The House Judiciary Committee, chaired by Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), opened with a hearing Republicans called “The Biden Border Crisis: Part I,” while the House Oversight and Accountability Committee, led by Rep. James Comes (R-Ky.), held a hearing on waste, fraud and abuse in federal pandemic spending.

House Republicans have vowed to investigate the Biden administration’s policies at the U.S.-Mexico border since they secured a slim majority in November’s midterm elections.

And Jordan and his fellow Republicans on the Judiciary Committee laid into President Biden at Wednesday’s hearing, reiterating their frequent complaint that the president’s policies have made the border unsecure and allowed for an influx of fentanyl and other illegal drugs.

“Under President Trump, the border was secure. Under President Biden, there is no border, and Americans are paying the price,” Jordan said in his opening remarks.

Republicans repeatedly pointed to an increased in illegal border crossings under Biden. There were more than 250,000 encounters at the southern border in December, the highest level of Biden’s presidency so far, according to newly released data from U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Over the last fiscal year, there were about 2.4 million encounters at the U.S.-Mexico border, up from around 1.7 million in 2021. While illegal border crossings dropped to about 450,000 in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic, there were a little over 850,000 encounters at the border in 2019.

However, Democrats countered that the blame for problems facing the southern border cannot be placed solely on Biden.

“This hearing is titled ‘Biden’s Border Crisis.’ That is completely wrong,” Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) said at Wednesday’s hearing. “It is not Biden’s border crisis. This has been a crisis for over half a century, for Nixon and every American president after him.”

“The only folks that can actually fix this problem is the United States Congress by passing laws,” he added.

Several Democrats also noted that Biden has continued several Trump-era border policies, much to the chagrin of some members in their party. Biden has kept in place the controversial Title 42 policy, which has allowed the U.S. to turn away asylum-seekers amid the COVID-19 public health emergency.

The Biden administration has also sought to discourage illegal border crossings with enhanced measures, such as those that bar individuals from Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela and Haiti from applying for asylum if they cross the southern border without authorization. Democrats pointed to the relative success of these policies at decreasing border crossings.

The House Oversight and Accountability Committee is set to follow the Judiciary Committee’s border policies hearing with its own meeting with U.S. Border Patrol agents next week.

Judiciary Committee ranking member Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) suggested that the panel’s GOP majority “hastily threw together” Wednesday’s hearing in an effort to beat the Oversight and Accountability Committee to the border issue, in the “latest spat in an ongoing turf war” between the chairmen of the two panels.

But across-the-aisle fireworks started before attention even turned to the border, with an hourlong debate over an amendment to the panel’s rules that would require members to recite the Pledge of Allegiance each time it convenes.

Democrats attempted to tweak the amendment — introduced by Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) — to bar anyone who had supported an insurrection from leading the committee in the pledge, and Nadler objected to note that House members already recite the pledge on the floor each day.

Lawmakers debated the issue across the aisle in a heated back-and-forth before the amendment passed unanimously in the GOP-led committee, without the insurrectionist clarification.

Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) ultimately led the Judiciary panel in the pledge, before the committee jumped into the rest of the hearing.

New Oversight Chairman James Comer (R-Ky.) also kicked off the panel’s first hearing of the new Congress on Wednesday, aimed at probing federal spending on the COVID-19 pandemic.

Comer has quickly become a top player in the GOP’s new House majority, leading the Oversight Committee flanked by firebrand Republican Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (Ga.), Lauren Boebert (Colo.), Andy Biggs (Ariz.) and Paul Gosar (Ariz.).

The Kentucky Republican has promised to probe the Biden administration on a number of issues and has also set his sights on investigating Biden’s family business dealings and the recent discovery of classified documents at Biden’s home and an old office. Judiciary is also set to look into the document handling.

Comer sidestepped questions over why the Oversight panel won’t be looking at former President Trump for similar classified document handling.

On Tuesday, Oversight examined pandemic-era relief programs — money given out as loans, grants or through unemployment insurance — aimed at keeping Americans afloat as COVID-19 hit the country, which Republicans say was a waste of funds and vulnerable to abuse.

“We owe it to Americans to identify how hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars spent under the guise of pandemic relief were lost to waste, fraud, abuse, and mismanagement,” Comer said.

Congress greenlighted trillions in COVID-19 relief through initiatives kickstarted in the early days of the pandemic, during the Trump administration — but more than 1,000 people have since pleaded guilty or been convicted of defrauding the government’s relief programs.

Democrats during the hearing didn’t object to oversight of the programs, but pushed back against their GOP counterparts’ framing on the issue.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) highlighted that Oversight Republicans had sent letters ahead of the hearing only to California, Pennsylvania and her home state of New York, probing their unemployment insurance systems — and argued the methodology behind targeting just the trio of blue states “is highly questionable.”

Rep. Mike Garcia (D-Calif.) argued that the committee’s new GOP majority will spend the next two-year session attempting to “rewrite history” and “absolve themselves of any of the decisions they made over the last two years in order to fit their own political narrative.”

Garcia suggested that House Republicans, who initially supported unemployment benefits during the pandemic, switched sides when Biden took the White House from Trump.

“What changed was we had President Biden. My hunch is if it was President Trump, they probably would have voted to extend those benefits once again,” Garcia said.

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