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A week that began with Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) harshly criticizing the Justice Department for its raid of Rep. William Jefferson’s (D-La.) office ended Friday with Hastert hearing dissent from members of his own Conference, some of whom worry that the controversy will hurt the GOP politically.
The substantive fight between Hastert, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and the Justice Department over the constitutionality of the May 20 raid by the FBI appeared to have subsided by Friday, after President Bush ordered the records seized from Jefferson’s office to be sealed, and both sides pledged to negotiate a settlement.
But to some critics of Hastert’s strong stance, the damage was already done, with a substantial number of Republican Members and aides worried that the public would take the fight as evidence that Congress was trying to protect its own Members from scrutiny.
Florida Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite (R) was the most forceful public critic, issuing a statement Friday morning saying, “I am extremely disappointed that some in this body — including the Speaker and the Minority Leader — feel that somehow our actions are sacrosanct and above public scrutiny.”
In a subsequent telephone interview Friday, Brown-Waite explained that she put out her statement because Hastert’s stance “just really, really bothered me and I thought I had to express very very strongly my concerns about it.”
“I tried to step back from the wonderful play-world of Washington, D.C., and think about how it looks to the average person,” Brown-Waite said. “It absolutely looks as if we are worthy — which I don’t believe — of special treatment. That really is what I believe is what the argument is all about. ... I don’t think that our offices should be a haven for illegal activities.”
In addition to her press statement, Brown-Waite also spoke up at a closed-door Republican Conference meeting Thursday afternoon. A handful of other lawmakers echoed her concerns, while some Members defended Hastert’s actions.
“Speaker Hastert wants Congressman Jefferson to be fully investigated and, if guilty, fully prosecuted,” said Hastert spokesman Ron Bonjean. “As a constitutional officer, he wants to make sure that the Justice Department does its job right and it looks like we’re coming to an amicable agreement on that issue.”
In making his stance against the FBI raid, Hastert has been stuck between his two roles — that of the constitutional officer in charge of the House, and that of the leader of House Republicans.
While his actions make sense to many Members in the context of that first role, some lawmakers and aides outside of his office have questioned whether he has served the Conference well in the second role by taking a stand that likely will not resonate well with the public.
Even within the Republican leadership, the issue has become a point of debate at Member- and staff-level strategy meetings, according to several sources, with some staffers arguing that Hastert and his aides should not have made their fight so high-profile and public.
By the end of last week, Hastert was tempering his rhetoric, especially after Bush announced his decision to seal the records. In a USA Today editorial published Friday, Hastert praised Bush’s decision and said, “The issue that has concerned me, as Speaker, since Saturday night is not if the FBI should be able to search a member of Congress’ office, but rather how to do it within the boundaries of the Constitution.”
Hastert also emphasized that, “If the information we have read about the behavior of [Jefferson] seems as obvious to a jury as it does to me, he deserves to be vigorously prosecuted. I do not want to do anything that will interfere with that prosecution.”
Hastert and other leaders have made clear that they should and will preface any further comments about the FBI raid with that type of statement, so it does not appear that they are actually trying to shield anyone from prosecution.
“Everyone agrees that we should not look like we are on the side of Congressman Jefferson, and we need to do a better job of communicating that we think the Justice Department needs to get to the bottom of the matter,” said a Republican leadership aide.
As for the substantive fight with the Justice Department, both sides intend to use the 45 days during which the Jefferson records will be sealed to try to reach a deal on how to proceed.
And after being largely absent from the debate most of the week, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) met with Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to express his own concerns about the raid.
While Hastert has met with Bush to discuss the issue, most of the substantive negotiations have taken place between House officials and Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty, a former House Judiciary Committee staffer.
As of Friday, the House Judiciary panel was scheduled to hold a hearing today on the matter titled, “RECKLESS JUSTICE: Did the Saturday Night Raid of Congress Trample the Constitution?”