WASHINGTON -- Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite, a low-profile second-term Republican from Florida, last Thursday introduced a resolution repudiating the stand of her leader, Speaker J. Dennis Hastert. It avows that a "Congressional office may be subject to searches and seizures" in an "ongoing criminal investigation" of a House member. It would be hard to find any colleagues who now disagree with her, even though most want to forget the embarrassing subject.
"I didn't know if I would be getting an office in the basement [after introducing the resolution]," Brown-Waite told this column. Like other lawmakers, she got an earful from constituents during the Memorial Day recess. Voters in her heavily Republican district northeast of Tampa and St. Petersburg, she told me, "were irate" over Hastert's criticism of the FBI raiding Democratic Rep. William Jefferson's offices. She found fellow Republican House members also had been "read the riot act" by constituents.
At the same time, the Justice Department and FBI reaction to Hastert's criticism was arrogant and undisciplined. Senior officials at the White House have not spoken out publicly, but they are appalled by Justice-FBI leaks. Nobody escapes from this episode untarnished, including President George W. Bush's decision to seal for 45 days the evidence obtained from Jefferson's office under court approval. Naturally, Republicans prefer to have heard the last of the sorry affair, and that's what makes the Brown-Waite resolution inconvenient.
Hastert, usually cool, was in a rage in demanding that documents taken from Jefferson's office in a May 20 Saturday night raid be returned to the congressman. Some of the speaker's closest associates in the Republican leadership, who do not want to be identified, had urged him to stay away from this issue. But Hastert was strongly influenced by his predecessor as speaker, Newt Gingrich, who opposed the raid on constitutional grounds. While Hastert is now depicted as flying alone, the Associated Press on May 24 reported "Democrats and Republicans together in a rare election-year accord" criticizing the raid.
A closed-door conference of House Republicans, according to participants, split evenly on the issue. Rep. James Sensenbrenner, House Judiciary Committee chairman, led the argument that the raid threatened the Constitution's prohibition of the executive branch questioning members of Congress on their "speech or debate" in either house. Sensenbrenner convened a hurry-up hearing May 30 in which self-described constitutional scholars claimed violation of the "speech or debate" clause.