House speaker protests to Bush over FBI raid on congressman’s office
WASHINGTON – House Speaker Dennis Hastert complained directly to President Bush on Tuesday about the FBI’s unprecedented raid on Rep. William Jefferson’s office, while officials said senior Democrats worked to ease the Louisiana lawmaker out of a powerful committee assignment, at least temporarily.”My opinion is that they took the wrong path,” Hastert, R-Ill., told reporters after meeting with Bush in the White House. “They need to back up, and we need to go from there.”White House officials said they didn’t learn of the search of Rep. William Jefferson’s office on Saturday night and Sunday until after it happened. They pledged to work with the Justice Department to soothe lawmakers’ anger.”We are hoping that there’s a way to balance the constitutional concerns of the House of Representatives with the law enforcement obligations of the executive branch,” said White House press secretary Tony Snow. “Obviously we are taking note of Speaker Hastert’s statements.”FBI agents raided Jefferson’s office over the weekend, and issued an affidavit saying they had earlier discovered $90,000 in cash wrapped and stashed in the freezer of his home.Jefferson has not been indicted and has denied wrongdoing. But his predicament spread concern through the upper echelons of Republicans and Democrats in both houses.House Democrats especially reacted quickly, in keeping with their election-year vow to campaign against what they call a Republican “culture of corruption.”Officials said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., had discussed Jefferson’s situation with several fellow senior lawmakers and there was a consensus that he should step aside, preferably voluntarily, at least until his legal situation was clarified. It was not clear whether she or an emissary had approached Jefferson. The officials who described the developments did so on condition of anonymity, citing the delicacy of the situation.Pelosi had no immediate comment on Jefferson’s situation.Jefferson is a member of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, with jurisdiction over taxes, trade, Medicare and more.Jefferson remained defiant late Tuesday.”I will not give up a committee assignment that is so vital to New Orleans at this crucial time for any uncertain, long-term political strategy,” Jefferson said in a statement. “If asked, I would respectfully decline.”His spokeswoman, Melanie Roussell, added that Jefferson will not resign from Congress.Pelosi moved aggressively recently when questions were raised about financial dealings of Rep. Alan Mollohan. The West Virginian quickly announced that he was voluntarily stepping aside as the senior Democrat on the ethics committee.Whatever Jefferson’s fate, the weekend raid stirred bipartisan expressions of concern.Attorney General Alberto Gonzales tried to strike a conciliatory tone, saying, “We have a great deal of respect for the Congress as a coequal branch of government.” But he also defended the search: “We have an obligation to the American people to pursue the evidence where it exists.”Justice Department officials said the decision to search Jefferson’s office was made in part because he refused to comply with a subpoena for documents last summer. Jefferson reported the subpoena to the House on Sept. 15, 2005.Historians said the search, carried out on a warrant issued last Thursday by U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Hogan in Washington, is the first in the 219-year history of the Congress.The House and Senate Judiciary committees were looking at the ramifications of Hogan’s action, but their respective chairmen, Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., and Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., both declined to comment Tuesday.House Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, also sharply criticized the search, telling reporters that Hastert’s aides are reviewing several responses, including legal options.”I’ve got to believe at the end of the day it’s going to end up across the street at the Supreme Court,” said Boehner. “I don’t see anything short of that.”Across the Capitol, Senate Rules Committee Chairman Trent Lott, R-Miss., said he had asked aides to research the law, history and Senate procedure and find out whether and how any such searches might be conducted.The search has aggravated already chafed relations between Congress and the White House over complaints by members in both parties about the Bush administration’s use of executive power. Specter personally told Bush in April following disclosures about secret, warrantless eavesdropping “that the president doesn’t have a blank check.”Top Democrats stood with Republicans in their protest of the FBI search’s search of a congressman’s office.”No member is above the law, but the institution has a right to protect itself against the executive department going into our offices,” said House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland.For all the tough talk, lawmakers tread a thin, election-year line at a time when public opinion of Congress is sagging and lawmakers of both parties are ensnared in ethics or criminal investigations.”When people commit crimes, they should be prosecuted, whether that person is a member of Congress or driving a cab or a lawyer some place,” said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. “From the little bit that I know about it now, I’m not going to beat up on the FBI.”Vail, Colorado
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