WASHINGTON – Rep. Dennis Hastert, speaker of the House of Representatives, Friday put Congress' constitutional argument with the Justice Department "behind us now" and said he's working with Justice to set guidelines for the FBI to review materials it seized from a lawmaker's office and any other searches of Congressional offices.
Hastert said he regrets that the FBI did not give congressional officials notice of their plans to search offices of Rep. William Jefferson last weekend or "figure out a way to do it consistently with the Constitution."
"But that is behind us now," Hastert said in the newspaper USA Today. "I am confident that in the next 45 days, the lawyers will figure out how to do it right."
Hastert's move came after President George W. Bush ordered that documents be sealed for 45 days, calling a time out in a fight between the legislative and executive branches over constitutional prerogatives.
Bush's spokesman branded as "false, false, false" any charges that the Justice Department, led by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, had tried to intimidate Hastert.
Lawmakers from both parties complained that the weekend search, said to be the first in congressional history, was an abuse of executive powers. So Bush tried on Thursday to calm the tone.
"Our government has not faced such a dilemma in more than two centuries," he said in a statement. "Yet after days of discussions, it is clear these differences will require more time to be worked out."
Bush granted one of Hastert's demands, directing the FBI to surrender documents and computerized records taken from the office of Rep. William Jefferson, a Democrat.
The president told Solicitor General Paul Clement, who has a separate office in the Justice Department, to take custody of the material.
Bush said no one is above the law and that he continued to support the investigation of Jefferson. The eight-term congressman is accused of accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars to facilitate a telephone investment deal in Africa.
"Those who violate the law — including a member of Congress — should and will be held to account," Bush said. "This investigation will go forward and justice will be served."
Hastert said the order would "give us some time to step back and try to negotiate with the Department of Justice."
"I appreciate that," he said later.
Gonzales said the move provides "time to reach a permanent solution that allows this investigation to continue while accommodating the concerns of certain members of Congress."
Jefferson said the order was "a good first step but ultimately, the answer would be to return the documents."
The pause came five days after the FBI, acting on a search warrant signed a week ago by a federal judge, raided Jefferson's office as part of the bribery investigation.
In an affidavit supporting the search warrant, the FBI said it had videotaped Jefferson last summer taking $100,000 in bribe money and that agents had found $90,000 of that cash stuffed in a freezer in his home.
Two people have pleaded guilty to bribing Jefferson to promote the high-tech business venture in Africa.
One of them, Brett Pfeffer, a former aide to the congressman, was being sentenced Friday in Alexandria, Virginia.
Jefferson has not been charged and has denied wrongdoing.
More than a dozen agents involved in the search took two boxes of paper records and made a copy of everything on Jefferson's personal computer, Jefferson's lawyer said in a legal filing Wednesday demanding the return of the materials.
The only items specifically identified by lawyer Robert Trout as having been taken by the FBI are letters requesting donations to the legal defense fund Jefferson created to defray his legal bills.
The FBI and prosecutors refused to allow lawyers for Jefferson or the House of Representatives to be present for the search, Trout and House officials said.
The dispute escalated all week. Hastert complained to Bush at least twice. He was joined Wednesday in rare agreement by his Democratic counterpart, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, in a statement demanding the FBI give back the material it seized.
On Thursday, Hastert accused the Justice Department of trying to intimidate him after ABC News quoted unidentified top law enforcement officials as saying the speaker was being investigated in a broad influence-peddling probe centered on convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
The department issued two denials of the report. Hastert demanded a retraction from the network, which refused. Hastert's lawyers threatened Thursday to sue the network. ABC again stood by its story.
"This is one of the leaks that come out to try to, you know, intimidate people," Hastert said on Chicago's WGN radio.
White House spokesman Tony Snow called the accusation "false, false, false."
"They're not leaking information to try to undermine the House speaker," Snow said. "I got pretty categorical denials."