WASHINGTON – The constitutional showdown that followed the FBI's search of a congressman's office came down to this: The House threatened budgetary retaliation against the Justice Department. Justice officials raised the prospect of resigning.
That scenario, as described Saturday by a senior administration official, set the stage for President Bush's intervention into the fight over the FBI's search of the office of Rep. William Jefferson, D-La., an eight-term lawmaker being investigated on bribery allegations.
During contentious conversations between the Department of Justice and the House, top law enforcement officials indicated that they'd rather quit than return documents FBI agents, armed with a warrant, seized in an overnight search of Jefferson's office, the administration official said.
Until last Saturday night, no such warrant had ever been used to search a lawmaker's office in the 219-year history of the Congress. FBI agents carted away records in their pursuit of evidence that Jefferson accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in exchange for helping set up business deals in Africa.
After the raid, House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill, lodged a protest directly with Bush, demanding that the FBI return the materials. Bush struck a compromise Thursday, ordering that the documents be sealed for 45 days until congressional leaders and the Justice Department agree on what to do with them.
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and his deputy, Paul McNulty, were said to be ready to quit if the Justice Department was asked to return the Jefferson documents, the senior administration official said on condition of anonymity. The resignation of FBI Director Robert Mueller also was implied, the official said.
"But none of these guys ever said to the White House that they were going to take that action," the official said, playing down any implication that the threatened resignations were the reason the president decided to seal the documents.
"You didn't have them (the law enforcement officials) marching up and threatening insubordination," said the official, who is familiar with discussions between the House and Justice Department. "It was more like `Well, if that happens, than this will happen."'
The House was threatening to go after the Justice Department's budget, and with both sides taking entrenched positions, the president stepped in as a mediator, the official said.
"In one of the conversations, both sides sort of backed off, even," the official said, adding that with a cooling-off period both sides have an interest in resolving the dispute.
House leaders acknowledged Friday that FBI agents with a court-issued warrant can legally search a congressman's office, but they said they want procedures established.
Gonzales was similarly optimistic. "We've been working hard already and we'll continue to do so pursuant to the president's order," he told The Associated Press on Friday.
In an editorial page article in USA Today on Friday, Hastert said he and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., have directed House lawyers "to develop reasonable protocols and procedures that will make it possible for the FBI to go into congressional offices to constitutionally execute a search warrant."
The new talks are aimed at establishing guidelines for any future searches that might stem from federal investigations, including a widening Capitol Hill influence-peddling probe centered on convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff.