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First Read’s Seven Questions for 2017

First Read is a morning briefing from Meet the Press and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter.

House GOP guts ethics panel; Republicans unveil to-do list to replace Obama policies 3:21

Our seven questions for 2017

With the brand-new year, with a new Congress that begins today, and with a new administration taking office in less than three weeks, here are our seven questions for 2017:

  • What will define the incoming Trump administration -- change or inexperience?

There is little doubt that change is coming to Washington with Donald Trump as president, whether it’s the rollback of President Barack Obama’s policies or the Tweeter-in-Chief who’s willing to defy the norms and previous protocols. (“General Motors is sending Mexican made model of Chevy Cruze to U.S. car dealers-tax free across border. Make in U.S.A.or pay big border tax!” he tweeted this morning.) But don’t forget: Trump and his team are the most inexperienced ever to run the White House and executive branch. Trump, after all, has never served in government before, and his top aides (Reince Priebus, Steve Bannon) have never worked in a White House. So what will be the early defining characteristic of Team Trump? The change they promised? Or their inexperience for the daunting job ahead?

  • Are Republicans prepared to own health care?

Remember the Pottery Barn Rule? You break it, you own it? Well, Republicans are poised to break Obamacare, one of the key promises they’ve made to their voters since 2010. The political question, however, is whether they’re equally prepared to own it and everything that goes with it -- the inevitably rising premiums, the changing health-care markets, and the millions of Americans who gained health insurance under the law, as well as those who currently like their health care. It appears Republicans will first repeal the law and then delay passing its replacement to help forestall some of these changes. But repeal would immediately discourage private health insurers from participating in the exchanges, which would collapse those markets and send those premiums soaring. We’re about to find out what happened to the dog who finally catches the car.

  • Who’s Trump’s upcoming Supreme Court pick?

This upcoming nomination to replace the late Antonin Scalia is probably guaranteed to set off Washington’s latest ideological battle.

  • How much do Democrats have to change? A lot? Or just a little?

That question will be initially answered next month, when the party elects its new Democratic National Committee chair. And that’s maybe the best way to view the Keith Ellison vs. Tom Perez (vs. others) DNC chair race: Does the party need a whole lot of change (as Bernie Sanders and his supporters have argued), or does it need just incremental change (after coming thisclose to winning a third-consecutive White House term, which has happened just once in the modern era)? Another way to look at it: What is conclusion for the Democrats’ loss -- that Clinton uniquely lost the presidential race, or that there’s a deeper problem?

  • Will congressional Democrats borrow from the GOP playbook?

As it turns out, Republicans enjoyed a tremendous amount of political success by simply opposing almost everything Obama and a Democratic Congress proposed. (The one big exception to the GOP’s success here was Obama’s 2012 re-election.) So will congressional Democrats return the favor? So far, they’ve extended an open hand to Trump when it comes to building more infrastructure. But is that real for a party who wants government to work? Or is it just for show before the inauguration?

  • Will the economy keep humming along?

Before even he takes office, Trump has been taking credit for a growing economy. “The U.S. Consumer Confidence Index for December surged nearly four points to 113.7, THE HIGHEST LEVEL IN MORE THAN 15 YEARS! Thanks Donald!” he tweeted over the holidays. The good news for Trump is that he’s inheriting a much stronger economy than his predecessor did. The bad news is that, after several years of economic expansion and with an unemployment rate now at 4.6%, will the economy keep humming, especially heading into the 2018 midterms and 2020 presidential race?

  • Will Trump’s cozy ties/stance to Russia become a liability?

That question will be put to the test with Rex Tillerson’s nomination to be Trump’s secretary of state, especially after the incoming president once again praised Vladimir Putin after the Obama administration sanctioned Russia for its interference in the 2016 presidential race. “Great move on delay (by V. Putin) - I always knew he was very smart!” Trump tweeted. Remember, Trump’s bromance with Putin could very well be the biggest fault line between him and some congressional Republicans (like John McCain and Lindsey Graham). On “Today” this morning, Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway said Trump will have his briefing with intelligence officials later this week to discuss Russia’s interference in the ’16 election.

Kellyanne Conway on Congressional ethics panel and agenda, Trump's info on Russia 5:10

The 115th Congress begins

The 115th Congress officially kicks off today, and NBC’s Alex Moe breaks down the activity in the House of Representatives:

  • The vote for speaker happens today: Just after noon, the House will gavel in for the 115th Congress and begin a roll call vote for House speaker. It is expected that Paul Ryan will get re-elected to the position, but it is always interesting to watch how many members of his party will vote against him. Also this year, following the tense battle within the Democratic Party after their loss in November, we will see how many Democrats vote for someone other than Nancy Pelosi.
  • President Obama heading to the Hill Wednesday: Per NBC’s Kelly O’Donnell and Kasie Hunt, President Obama will meet with House and Senate Democrats on Capitol Hill Wednesday to discuss ways to protect the health-care law in the new Congress.
  • More electoral-vote counting: On Friday at 1:00 pm Et, the House will convene for a Joint Session of Congress to count the electoral ballots for president and vice president of the United States.
  • Israel: Congress will take up a resolution disapproving of the UN Security Council’s Resolution 2334 relating to Israel rebuking President Obama’s lack of a veto of the resolution. The House will possibly take up this resolution this week and then send to the Senate.

So much for draining the swamp

NBC’s Moe also has this dispatch: “Just hours before the 115th Congress gavels in, House Republicans voted to weaken the independent ethics office that investigates House lawmakers and staff accused of misconduct. During a closed-door meeting Monday, by a vote of 119 to 74, House Republicans defied their leadership to adopt an amendment by Rep Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., to place the Office of Congressional Ethics, known as OCE, under the jurisdiction of the House Ethics Committee. The move effectively gives the ethics oversight and investigative role to the lawmakers themselves and prevents information about investigations from being released to the public.” More from Moe: “Goodlatte's office said the amendment was intended to increase protection of due process rights for House representatives of staffers under investigation and grant them more access to basic ‘evidentiary standards.’ The amendment bars the office, which would be renamed the Office of Congressional Complaint Review, from considering anonymous complaints and complaints about activity from before 2010.” On “Today” this morning, Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway said the incoming president hasn’t yet weighed in on this move, but she appeared to defend it, saying that Congress would still have recourse to pursue ethics investigations.

And it makes it easier for Democrats to tie Trump’s ethics issues to House Republicans

Remember, outside of the Iraq war, Republicans lost control of the House in 2006 due to ethics issues (hello, Jack Abramoff!) So of all of the things House Republican could do, weakening the ethics office is puzzling and politically problematic. And it makes it harder for House Republicans to distance themselves from any Trump ethics issues that arise.

Trump Cabinet Watch

NBC’s Kristen Welker and Hallie Jackson reported that former Reagan administration official Robert Lighthizer will be Trump’s pick to be U.S. trade representative; Lighthizer was deputy USTR under Reagan. The three positions that haven’t been filled yet: Agriculture, Veterans Affairs, and Director of National Intelligence. Below is our full list:

  • Secretary of State: Rex Tillerson OFFERED
  • Attorney General: Jeff Sessions OFFERED
  • Treasury: Steve Mnuchin OFFERED
  • Defense: JamesMattis OFFERED
  • Homeland: John Kelly OFFERED
  • Interior: Ryan Zinke OFFERED
  • HHS: Tom Price OFFERED
  • HUD: Ben Carson OFFERED
  • Education: Betsy DeVos OFFERED
  • Commerce: Wilbur Ross OFFERED
  • Transportation: Elaine Chao OFFERED
  • Labor: Andy Puzder OFFERED
  • Agriculture: Sid Miller, Heidi Heitkamp
  • Energy: Rick Perry OFFERED
  • Veterans Affairs: Scott Brown, Jeff Miller, Adm. Michelle Howard
  • OMB Director: Mick Mulvaney OFFERED
  • U.S Trade Representative: Robert Lighthizer
  • CIA Director: Mike PompeoOFFERED
  • UN Ambassador: Nikki Haley OFFERED
  • Environmental Protection Agency: Scott Pruitt OFFERED
  • National Security Adviser: Michael Flynn OFFERED
  • Director of National Intelligence: Fran Townsend, Carly Fiorina
  • Small Business Administration: Linda McMahon OFFERED
  • RNC Chair: Ronna Romney McDaniel OFFERED