- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 25, 2006

President Bush yesterday sealed the files the FBI seized from a Louisiana congressman’s Capitol office as part of a bribery probe, saying the Justice Department and Congress should take 45 days to resolve the constitutional issues involved.

The White House has been stung by criticism from top Republicans that last week’s nighttime raid of the office of Rep. William J. Jefferson, Louisiana Democrat, violated the separation of powers between the branches of government. Mr. Bush’s action yesterday was both an acknowledgment that the move was unprecedented, and a plea for time for the parties to cool off.

“Our government has not faced such a dilemma in more than two centuries. Yet after days of discussions, it is clear these differences will require more time to be worked out,” Mr. Bush said yesterday afternoon.

He also said if the Justice Department and Congress can’t resolve it, they should take it to court.

Under Mr. Bush’s orders, the seized papers will be turned over to the Solicitor General’s Office and no one will be allowed access to the files other than to preserve them.

“It’s a big step in the right direction to try to diffuse the crisis that we have,” House Majority Leader John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, said of the 45-day freeze.

House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat — the two lead critics of the raid, who earlier this week demanded the documents be returned — said the House counsel will start negotiating with the Justice Department to reach a resolution.

Mr. Jefferson is the subject of an ongoing federal investigation.

House Republican leaders called their members to a meeting yesterday afternoon to discuss the situation. Afterward, Mr. Hastert said the 45-day freeze is “an agreement we can live with” and predicted a resolution is possible.

“I think there’s a great appreciation of the 45 days and there’s a great appreciation for the speaker’s leadership on this,” said House Majority Whip Roy Blunt, Missouri Republican.

Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales said Mr. Bush’s move “provides additional time to reach a permanent solution that allows this investigation to continue while accommodating the concerns of certain members of Congress.”

Not all lawmakers, however, are opposed to the FBI’s actions. Republican Sen. David Vitter, Louisiana Republican, was briefed yesterday by high-level Justice Department officials and said, “I feel more strongly than ever that that search was legal and constitutional.”

He said that if lawmakers continue to complain, the American people will think Congress is trying to protect its own.

Some House Republicans also said it’s politically bad for Republicans to be feuding. “I don’t think we should be fighting with the FBI going into an election,” said Rep. Joe Pitts, Pennsylvania Republican.

Meanwhile, Mr. Hastert yesterday accused the Justice Department of trying to intimidate him because of his vocal outrage over the FBI search.

“This is one of the leaks that come out to try to, you know, intimidate people. And we’re just not going to be intimidated,” he told Chicago radio station WGN yesterday morning. Later, he said, “All I’m saying is, here are the dots. People can connect any dots they want to.”

Mr. Hastert was referring to an ABC News story Wednesday that referred to an unnamed law-enforcement source as saying the Illinois Republican is part of the Justice Department’s investigation surrounding convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Soon after the story broke, the Justice Department issued a statement saying Mr. Hastert is not being investigated.

Mr. Hastert demanded a retraction of the story, which ABC stood behind. The speaker’s lawyers yesterday threatened to sue ABC on libel and defamation charges.

Jerry Seper contributed to this story, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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