House search debated


WASHINGTON -- The confrontation between congressional leaders and the Bush administration over the search of a representative's office escalated yesterday, with House Speaker Dennis Hastert and other congressional leaders demanding the return of all material seized.

The chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., also announced that he would hold hearings next week on what he called serious constitutional questions concerning the 18-hour search of the Capitol Hill office of Rep. William J. Jefferson, a Louisiana Democrat.

Jefferson is the target of a federal bribery and influence-peddling probe.

The Justice Department continued to defend the raid, conducted over the weekend by more than 15 FBI agents, while holding out the possibility of a compromise settlement.

But some experts said the department appeared to be on firm legal footing, and some members of Congress began to question how the public will view the leadership's contention that congressional offices should be off-limits to federal agents with search warrants.

"For congressional leaders to make these self-serving arguments in the midst of serious scandals in Congress only further erodes the faith and confidence of the American people," Sen. David Vitter, a Louisiana Republican, said in a letter to Senate leaders.

The chamber is currently the focus of more corruption investigations than in at any time in a generation.

Conservatives criticized House Republicans for putting themselves above the law. "In essence, they're asking for themselves to be treated as an imperial body," said radio commentator Rush Limbaugh. "Talk about being politically tone-deaf."

New details also began to emerge about the search, including information about a sealed court battle during which Jefferson apparently fought efforts to obtain the documents by asserting his right against self-incrimination.

Members of Congress insisted they were not defending any possible wrongdoing by Jefferson but said important constitutional principles had been violated by the raid, the first time in history that law enforcement authorities served a search warrant on a congressional office.

"No person is above the law, neither the one being investigated nor those conducting the investigation," Hastert said yesterday in a rare joint statement with House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California.

Maura Reynolds and Richard B. Schmitt write for the Los Angeles Times.

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