By Lois Romano
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 29, 2006
After a week of bipartisan outrage over an FBI raid on a congressman's office, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist weighed in yesterday, saying that he was "okay" with the search and saw no constitutional problems with it.
"No House member, no senator, nobody in government should be above the law of the land, period," Frist said of the search of the office of William J. Jefferson (D-La.), who has been accused of bribery.
Frist (R-Tenn.) said on "Fox News Sunday" that he had studied the provision in the Constitution regarding the separation of powers, and consulted with Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales. He concluded that the FBI acted appropriately when it used a warrant to search the office of a sitting lawmaker for the first time in history.
"I don't think it abused separation of powers," Frist said. "I think there's allegations of criminal activity, and the American people need to have the law enforced."
Eight days ago, FBI agents angered many members of Congress when they took from Jefferson's office records and a computer as they investigate whether Jefferson illegally took money for brokering business deals in Africa. The raid threw Washington into tumult last week, inflaming congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle, and reportedly prompting Gonzales and FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III to threaten to quit if the documents were returned.
House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California responded in a show of unity, jointly protesting that the search was illegal, and complaining that they were not notified before the raid. Hastert complained to President Bush, who weighed in by ordering the Justice Department to seal the materials for 45 days until congressional leaders and the department can agree on the next step.
"I think the president handled it well, because we had tempers flying," Frist said. "We don't need to be doing that. And so the president came in and put a pause . . . to let things settle down."
Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), assistant minority leader, also took a measured view of the raid, questioning whether the "speech and debate" protections in the Constitution were violated, as critics say. "I'm not sure you can stretch it to apply to this situation," he said. He noted that the action was not without precedent. He said that the FBI has raided the office of a federal judge before, so there is a history of branches of government crossing each other with regard to a search warrant. "In the next several weeks, we ought to take a hard look at it. I'm not going to rule it in or out at this moment."
House Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), who called a hearing tomorrow on the constitutionality of the search, said yesterday that the FBI overreached.
"This debate is not over whether Congressman Jefferson is guilty of a criminal offense," Sensenbrenner said on NBC's "Meet the Press." "He cannot use the constitutional immunity of Congress to shield himself from that or any evidence of that. But it is about the ability of the Congress to be able to do its job free of coercion from the executive branch."