WASHINGTON – House Speaker Dennis Hastert demanded Wednesday that the FBI surrender documents it seized and remove agents involved in the weekend raid of Rep. William Jefferson's office, under what lawmakers of both parties said were unconstitutional circumstances.
"We think those materials ought to be returned," Hastert said, adding that the FBI agents involved "ought to be frozen out of that (case) just for the sake of the constitutional aspects of it."
The Saturday night search of Jefferson's office on Capitol Hill brought Democrats and Republicans together in rare election-year accord, with both parties protesting agency conduct they said violated the Constitution's separation of powers doctrine.
Democrats, meanwhile, tried to get Jefferson to resign his seat on the House's most prestigious panel.
"In the interest of upholding the high ethical standard of the House Democratic Caucus, I am writing to request your immediate resignation from the Ways and Means Committee," wrote House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi in the one-sentence correspondence.
Jefferson was defiant.
"With respect, I decline to do so," he wrote back to Pelosi."I will not give up a committee assignment that is so vital to New Orleans at this crucial time for any uncertain, long-term political strategy."
His spokeswoman, Melanie Roussell, added that Jefferson will not resign from Congress.
Support from a majority of the House would be required to strip Jefferson of his seat on the panel. It was not immediately clear whether such a vote has been planned, according to knowledgeable officials of both parties who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Jefferson, meanwhile, on Wednesday filed a motion asking U.S. District Judge Thomas Hogan to order the FBI to return all of the documents taken from his office during the 15-hour search. Hogan was the judge who last Thursday issued the warrant authorizing the search.
The congressman also asked that FBI and Justice Department attorneys be prohibited from reviewing the documents and that they be locked up until the judge acts on the motion.
Jefferson's motion said the search violated "speech and debate" protections in the Constitution to insure the independence of lawmakers.
Presidential administrations and the Congress have routinely subpoenaed information from each other, and often they have refuse to cede the materials sought.
This is the first time the branch seeking the information dispatched its law enforcement arm to wrest information from the office of a sitting congressman who is the target of a probe.
Most members of the leadership of both houses objected to the search because they said it violated the Constitution.
"The institution has a right to protect itself against the executive department going into our offices and violating what is the (Constitution's) speech and debate clause, which essentially says, `That's none of your business, executive department'," said House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland.
Republicans, meanwhile, were being careful to protest the raid without defending Jefferson, in an increasingly tense relationship with the White House over its use of executive power.
A day earlier, Hastert, R-Ill., complained personally to President Bush about raid. Other House officials have predicted that the case would bring all three branches together at the Supreme Court for a constitutional showdown.
In April, Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., personally told Bush that "the president doesn't have a blank check" during a discussion of Bush's domestic wiretapping program.
Hastert kept up the drumbeat after the FBI's raid of Jefferson's office.
"My opinion is that they took the wrong path," Hastert said after meeting with Bush in the White House. "They need to back up, and we need to go from there."
The developments are the beginning of what lawmakers predict will be a long dispute over the FBI's search of Jefferson's office last weekend. Historians say it was the first raid of a representative's quarters in Congress' 219 years.
FBI agents searched Jefferson's office in pursuit of evidence in a bribery investigation. The search warrant, signed by U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Hogan, was based on an affidavit that said agents found $90,000 in cash wrapped and stashed in the freezer of Jefferson's home.
White House officials said they did not learn of the search until after it happened. They pledged to work with the Justice Department to soothe lawmakers.
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales tried to strike a conciliatory tone, saying, "We have a great deal of respect for the Congress as a coequal branch of government." But he also defended the search: "We have an obligation to the American people to pursue the evidence where it exists."
Justice Department officials said the decision to search Jefferson's office was made in part because he refused to comply with a subpoena for documents last summer. Jefferson reported the subpoena to the House on Sept. 15, 2005.