Suddenly, It's a Steel-Cage Match With the White House

Usually a staunch ally of the administration, House Speaker Dennis Hastert has lately been sharply critical on several issues.
Usually a staunch ally of the administration, House Speaker Dennis Hastert has lately been sharply critical on several issues. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
By Dana Milbank
Friday, May 26, 2006

For years, House Speaker Dennis Hastert, a genial former wrestling coach, has stood on the sidelines as President Bush seized power from a quiescent legislative branch. But this week, with the unlikeliest of provocations, the speaker has hit the administration with the political equivalent of a three-quarter face lock Russian leg sweep.

First, he came out to demand that the administration return documents seized in a raid of a Democrat's congressional office. Then, when ABC News reported Wednesday night that Hastert was under investigation in the Jack Abramoff affair, the Illinois Republican blamed the Bush administration for the dubious report.

"This is one of the leaks that come out to try to, you know, intimidate people," the usually mild speaker told Chicago's WGN radio yesterday. "We're just not going to be intimidated on it." Asked later if he was charging the Justice Department with retaliating for his stance in the congressional office raid, he answered: "Here are the dots. People can connect any dots they want to." If that wasn't clear enough, he added: "I thought it was an interesting sequence of events."

"False, false, false," retorted White House spokesman Tony Snow, with the surprise of a man who had been bitten by his own dog.

The radicalization of Denny Hastert has been a marvel to behold after years in which Bush has urged him to stay on the job because of his fierce loyalty to the White House. First, Hastert groused about the Dubai port deal. Then, he criticized the administration's ouster of CIA chief Porter Goss. Now, his fury about the office search has come like a nor'easter merging with the tropical depression congressional Republicans already find themselves in -- and it's getting stormy on the Hill.

House Republicans huddled over Twinkies, chips and soft drinks for nearly two hours last evening about the constitutional impasse, even after Bush tried to defuse the conflict by sealing the seized files for 45 days. The House Judiciary Committee chairman, James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), announced that he would hold a hearing titled "Reckless Justice: Did the Saturday Night Raid of Congress Trample the Constitution?"

"Every two years, I stand in the well of the House and raise my right hand and swear to uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States," a high-minded John Boehner (R-Ohio), the House majority leader, told reporters.

"We need to protect the division of powers in the Constitution of the United States," the speaker himself said -- over and over again.

Suddenly, all the issues that seemed so pressing a few days earlier -- war spending, immigration, gas prices -- were on the back burner. Emerging from the meeting of House Republicans, GOP spokesman Sean Spicer said members were willing to come out and talk about oil drilling; not a single journalist accepted the offer.

The newfound passion for congressional prerogatives has amused Democrats, who have complained for years about what they say is the administration's contempt for congressional authority. The White House has stiffed requests from Congress on such key issues as probes of Hurricane Katrina to the eavesdropping programs at the National Security Agency.

"I note your public outrage over this search of a Member of Congress because it is in stark contrast to the conspicuous lack of such concern regarding similar questions about this administration's actions regarding millions of average citizens," Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) teased in a letter to Hastert. "[Y]ou and your Republican colleagues have ranged from largely silent to vehemently supportive of every action this Administration has taken to expand executive powers."

A few Republicans are baffled that Hastert has chosen to take a stand on this issue. He's in the awkward position of defending the rights of Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.), who was filmed by the FBI taking $100,000 in alleged bribe money, $90,000 of which was later found in his freezer. Jefferson had ignored a subpoena for the information for months before a warrant was issued for the raid -- and constitutional experts say it's not at all clear that the administration broke the law.

"I think this outcry from congressional leaders just looks self-serving and defensive to the American people," Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) complained at a news conference on immigration, which turned to the Hastert matter. He appeared in the Senate press gallery later to add that the arguments made by Hastert and others "are ridiculous on their face." Asked about the speaker's assertion that the ABC News report was retribution by the Justice Department, Vitter called that "an unusual statement."

But Hastert isn't about to release his claw-hold.

Emerging from the Capitol for a lunchtime photo op with veterans to observe Memorial Day, he didn't back down from his suggestion that somebody in the administration had set him up by planting the Abramoff story with ABC News. "I don't know if this leak out of the Justice Department or wherever it came was a coincidence or not," he said with a scowl. "I'll let anybody else try to connect the dots."

A few hours later, after his huddle with House Republicans, Hastert emerged with his hair askew and his eyeglasses crooked, but his determination still fierce. "I tried not to pick a high-profile fight," he said.

But now he's got one. "We want to make sure we protect the Constitution," Hastert said. Even if it requires an Argentine backbreaker or a reverse Frankensteiner.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company