Congress Debates Immigration, FBI Search on Capitol Hill

Congress spent much of the past week debating the immigration issue. But Capitol Hill was also preoccupied by the FBI probe of Rep. William Jefferson (D-LA). A decision by the FBI to conduct a weekend search of the lawmaker's office angered even Republican congressional leaders. Madeleine Brand and Alex Chadwick discuss these and other major political stories with NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

No surprise in Washington today when Gen. Hayden was confirmed as the new head of the CIA. But dominating the news in the nation's capital for much of this week, fallout from an FBI raid over last weekend on a lawmaker's office. The action brought strong protests from leaders of both parties.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Joining us now for a look at this and other stories from the week in Washington is NPR senior correspondent, Juan Williams. And hi, Juan. First of all, tell us about this raid on William Jefferson's office.

JUAN WILLIAMS reporting:

It sounds like something out of a novel. You have 15 agents, Madeleine, this is really something, 15 agents who show up at the congressman's office in the Rayburn office building on Capitol Hill Saturday night around seven o'clock. They are there until one o'clock Sunday afternoon. And they are looking for documents related to potential bribery charges. Two people have already pled guilty to bribing Congressman Jefferson, who's an eight-term congressman from Louisiana. But no charges, as yet, have been brought against the congressman. And he has refused to cooperate for now nine months with a subpoena asking for documents in his office.

BRAND: Hmm. So he refuses to cooperate with the subpoena, so the FBI says, well, what else can we do? We need to raid his office on Capitol Hill. And all of the sudden, everyone there is in an uproar over this, including, interestingly enough, the leader of the Republican Party.

WILLIAMS: You're talking about Speaker of the House Denny Hastert, who literally went to the President, to President Bush, and said this is wrong. You have the number two man in the House, the Majority Leader John Boehner, saying this is headed to a Supreme Court showdown. You have the judiciary committee chairman in the House, again, a Republican, James Sensenbrenner, saying this was a Saturday night raid that trampled the Constitution. And what their argument is, the executive and the Justice Department - the FBI's part of the executive branch - have no right to go into any congressman's office. From their perspective, this could interfere with their ability to do their jobs, either in terms of oversight or to simply act as a legislative arm without interference from the executive.

Now, obviously, the Attorney General, Alberto Gonzales, and the FBI are making the case here that this is a criminal investigation, it has nothing to do with politics. And they believe that Hastert is overreacting.

CHADWICK: Juan, you mentioned Speaker Hastert. In the middle of this week then ABC News reported that he is the subject of a Justice Department investigation in connection with the scandal of the lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Here's what the Speaker had to say about that.

Representative DENNIS HASTERT (Republican, Illinois): The Justice Department said that there is no investigation. And you know, this is one of the leaks to come to try to, you know, intimidate people. And, you know, this is about trying to kind of smokescreen some of the separation of power stuff that we're doing.

CHADWICK: Well, there he is, speaking on WGN radio in Chicago. But ABC is sticking by the story. What's going on?

WILLIAMS: Other news organizations have tried to follow this up and have been unable to confirm any of it. In fact, they've been told, don't do that story, it's not right. Now, from Hastert's perspective - let me just say that he did, in 2003 write a letter to the woman who was then the interior secretary, Gale Norton, asking that a casino not be allowed to be built on an Indian reservation. Abramoff had clients that were opposed to the construction of this casino. And Hastert had wrote in support of it after - this was after Abramoff had held a fundraiser for Hastert's political action committee. So there's always been a question about whether or not Hastert would get involved in this thing. And suddenly here you have Brian Austin of ABC saying, yes, he is part of it. But it comes at just the moment when Hastert is standing up for -it's so odd - a Democrat.

BRAND: And then, Juan, you have President Bush stepping into this fray, actually getting involved in this.

WILLIAMS: Yeah, he's said now, we want to seal the documents that were taken from Jefferson's office for 45 days, what he describes as a cooling off period that will allow the House leadership and the Justice Department to come to some agreement about what can be done legitimately with these documents. This is politics. This is law. I say it's a good book. It's good beach reading for the Memorial Day weekend.

BRAND: Okay. Thank you very much, Juan.

WILLIAMS: You're welcome, Madeleine.

BRAND: NPR senior correspondent, Juan Williams.

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