Thursday, May 25, 2006

Conservatives yesterday expressed confusion and outrage over House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert’s defense of a Democratic congressman whose Capitol Hill office was raided last weekend by the FBI.

“Only thing I can figure is that Denny got up one morning and said, ‘Our approval with the public is at 27 percent — how can I drive that down further?’” said former Rep. Bob Barr, Georgia Republican.

House Republicans, meanwhile, refused to criticize their leader, who joined Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi in accusing the Justice Department of violating “protocols and procedures” because of the FBI’s Saturday night seizure of records from the offices Rep. William J. Jefferson, Louisiana Democrat.

Radio host Rush Limbaugh yesterday told his millions of listeners that the Hastert-Pelosi alliance shows the GOP has become “politically tone-deaf,” while a Louisiana senator was the only elected Republican in Washington to criticize the defense of congressional privilege by Mr. Hastert, Illinois Republican.

“For congressional leaders to react by trying to ban or limit searches of congressional offices will only destroy what little faith and confidence in the institution is left,” said Sen. David Vitter, Louisiana Republican. “Make no mistake, the American people will come to one conclusion, that congressional leaders are trying to protect their own from valid investigation.”

Veteran conservative activist Richard Viguerie said Mr. Hastert “is clueless — he just doesn’t get it, doesn’t understand he has to make changes, the same in the Senate.”

Mr. Viguerie predicted that “this whole thing is going to come down on” Republicans, who are expecting a powerful Democratic challenge this November to their 12-year control of the House, in a campaign where scandal and corruption have already become a key issue.

Several polls in recent weeks have indicated that Americans consider the GOP more prone to corruption than Democrats. Earlier this month for example, a CBS/New York Times survey reported that 40 percent of those polled said “Republicans in Congress are more financially corrupt,” compared to 15 percent who said Democrats are more corrupt and 30 percent who said both parties are equally corrupt.

The political impact of the Jefferson case — the New Orleans congressman who prosecutors say hid $90,000 in bribe money in his freezer — drew Mr. Limbaugh’s attention.

“Here you have the Democrats attempting … to craft as a campaign theme the Republican ‘culture of corruption,’ and lo and behold, delivered to the Republicans on a silver platter is Congressman William Jefferson,” the nation’s No. 1 talk-radio host said yesterday. “So you would think that the Republican leadership would understand there’s an opportunity here.”

Court documents describing the Rayburn House Office Building search revealed new details of federal prosecutors’ corruption charges against Mr. Jefferson, part of a continuing investigation that has already produced two convictions, including a former Jefferson aide.

Mr. Hastert and Mrs. Pelosi yesterday said the Justice Department’s search of Mr. Jefferson’s office was a violation of the separation of powers guaranteed under Article I of the Constitution, which says members of Congress “shall in all cases, except treason, felony and breach of the peace, be privileged from arrest during their attendance at the session of their respective houses, and in going to and returning from the same; and for any speech or debate in either House, they shall not be questioned in any other place.”

Mr. Barr, a former federal prosecutor — and a leader in the 1998 impeachment of President Clinton — scoffed at the Hastert-Pelosi statement.

“There is no constitutional right to secret evidence of criminal activity, just because it happens to occupy space on Capitol Hill,” said Mr. Barr. “I think the FBI is perfectly within its rights to exercise a judicially approved search warrant.”

One top Republican in Washington yesterday said privately that the problem was that nobody in the Bush administration had bothered to tip off Mr. Hastert or House Majority Leader John A. Boehner before the FBI staged its search of Mr. Jefferson’s offices. Capitol Hill insiders said complaints by some House Republicans were aired in a tense two-hour closed-door leadership meeting yesterday.

While the House GOP publicly closed ranks behind Mr. Hastert, Mr. Viguerie yesterday said the leader’s stance was arrogant.

“What Hastert and Pelosi are doing in hammering the FBI is saying, ‘We play by different rules from ordinary people. We protect each other, Republicans and Democrats, in Congress,’” said Mr. Viguerie. “Congress makes sure its members have no serious competition, and the public understands and resents that.”

Mr. Barr said the House leadership’s stand was motivated in part by resentment of the Bush White House.

“I suppose on a very general level Congress has for some reason awakened from its constitutional sleepwalk and seized on this as way to assert it relevance and power,” Mr. Barr said. “The Congress has allowed itself to be slapped around by the Bush administration and appears to be unconcerned about eroding the base of its authority.”

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