WASHINGTON – House Speaker Dennis Hastert complained directly to President Bush about the FBI's unprecedented raid on Rep. William Jefferson's office on Tuesday, while officials said senior Democrats worked to ease the Louisiana lawmaker out of a powerful committee assignment, at least temporarily.
"Obviously we are taking note of Speaker Hastert's statements," said White House press secretary Tony Snow after the Illinois Republican spoke with Bush at the White House.
FBI agents raided Jefferson's House office over the weekend, and issued an affidavit saying they had earlier discovered $90,000 in cash wrapped and stashed in the freezer of his home as part of a bribery investigation.
Jefferson has not been indicted and has denied wrongdoing. But his predicament spread concern through the upper echelons of House Democrats, who have vowed to campaign in this fall's midterm elections against what they call a Republican "culture of corruption."
Officials said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., had discussed Jefferson's situation with several fellow senior lawmakers and there was a consensus that he should step aside, preferably voluntarily, at least until his legal situation was clarified. It was not clear whether she or an emissary had approached Jefferson. The officials who described the developments did so on condition of anonymity, citing the delicacy of the situation.
Jefferson is a member of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, with jurisdiction over taxes, trade, Medicare and more.
"He's not going to step down from Ways and Means," said his spokeswoman, Melanie Roussell. "Nor will he resign from Congress."
The search may have overstepped constitutional boundaries, House leaders said as the congressman under investigation pledged to stay in office.
House Majority Leader John Boehner of Ohio told reporters Tuesday that the Congress will somehow speak to "this issue of the Justice Department's invasion of the legislative branch. In what form, I don't know."
"I've got to believe at the end of the day it's going to end up across the street at the Supreme Court," Boehner said.
Hastert said Monday the Justice Department had never before crossed a line that separates Congress from the executive branch by searching a congressional office while investigating a member of Congress.
The search warrant was issued by a federal district judge in suburban Virginia, based on an affidavit from FBI investigators outlining some of the evidence that have accumulated in the case, including video tape of Jefferson accepting $100,000 in $100 bills from an FBI informant, who agreed to have her conversations with the congressman taped.
Agents later found all but $10,000 of the cash — in marked bills — hidden in a freezer in one of the congressman's homes, according to the affidavit.
His homes in New Orleans and the Washington area were searched by FBI agents last August.
"Nothing I have learned in the last 48 hours leads me to believe that there wasn doubt, the filter team will give the documents to a judge for a definitive ruling before giving them to case prosecutors, according to the affidavit.
Hastert said those protections may not be enough.
"It is not at all clear to me that it would even be possible to create special procedures that would overcome the Constitutional problems that the execution of this warrant has created," he said.
Jefferson has not been charged and has denied any wrongdoing, but two of his associates have pleaded guilty to bribery-related charges in federal court in Alexandria, Va.
The House Ethics Committee has opened an inquiry into the case.