Robert Novak

Meanwhile, the Bush administration was imploding, with ABC News reporting Hastert is under investigation in the Jack Abramoff scandal. The administration informed the speaker there was no truth to the report, but bitterness continues. A senior White House aide told me he believes the FBI leaked false information about Hastert in retaliation, though the president's aides are unlikely to pursue this ugly story.

Even more troubling were reports, never officially denied, that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty threatened to quit if the Jefferson evidence were returned. There is strong feeling among the Capitol Hill Republicans that the two Justice Department officials should have been given their walking papers at that point.

All that preceded the shock Republicans in Congress encountered on recess when outraged constituents told them Congress should not be above the law. That included several members of the speaker's inner circle, who, after going home, felt Hastert had committed a blunder of far reaching political consequences but still do not want to be quoted. That desire is not shared by Ginny Brown-Waite, a little-known backbencher. After an unproductive meeting with Hastert, she prepared her resolution.

Going into the weekend, Brown-Waite had collected 20 Republican co-sponsors (ranging across the party's full ideological spectrum) and had not yet circulated it among Democrats. "If anything comes up that I can attach it to, I will," she said. When I asked for the Speaker's view of the Brown-Waite amendment approving searches of congressional offices, a spokesman said: "We agree with it, and believe it should be done in a constitutional way. We are working on that process." If Hastert had said that a week earlier, he would have saved himself and his party from more embarrassment in a difficult period.

Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.

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