NPR logo Equating Bill Jefferson with Thomas Jefferson

Equating Bill Jefferson with Thomas Jefferson

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Hastert, embroiled in a feud over the search of Congressman Jefferson's offices, becomes the longest-serving Republican House speaker in history on June 1. hide caption

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If Democrat Francine Busby wins next Tuesday's special congressional election in California's 50th District, it could be a sign that Republicans are in for some trouble come November. hide caption

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Thirty-three years ago today, the Senate cuts off all funding for U.S. war efforts in Cambodia. hide caption

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It's hard to say that this has been a particularly weird week in Washington, because weird is often the norm in Washington. But the sequence of events that followed an FBI search of Rep. William Jefferson's (D-LA) offices on Capitol Hill is nothing short of surreal.

Jefferson has long been under investigation for shady activity, and while he himself has not been charged with anything (and has denied any wrongdoing), a former top aide was sentenced last week to eight years in federal prison for bribing a public official. Documents in the case have made it clear that the public official happens to be Jefferson, though his name officially did not come up.

Another former aide has also pleaded guilty to paying more than $400,000 in bribes to Jefferson in exchange for his assistance in putting together a deal between a telecommunications firm and several African nations. According to the FBI, the congressman has allegedly been videotaped accepting $100,000 in marked bills in a sting operation, $90,000 of which has been found in Jefferson's freezer.

Some armchair lawyers might call this pretty much an open and shut case. And some Republican partisans might say this helps soften the Democrats' charge of a pervasive GOP "culture of corruption" on Capitol Hill. Plus, the insistence by House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi that Jefferson give up his seat on the Ways and Means Committee not only was rejected by Jefferson, but it led to further strained relations between Pelosi and the Congressional Black Caucus.

But it was not something the Republican Party seemed capable of capitalizing on. That became clear once GOP congressional leaders, most prominently House Speaker Dennis Hastert, denounced the FBI search as a violation of the separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches of government. As to why congressional Republicans haven't complained about growing executive power before now, well, that will be left for another day.

But Hastert seemed really exercised about this, and his mood wasn't lifted after ABC News, quoting anonymous sources, reported that he was under investigation by the Justice Department for an undetermined role he played in the scandal involving convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff. This charge — vehemently denied by the congressman as well as by the DOJ — led Hastert to imply it was an effort by Justice to intimidate him.

Other Republicans were joining Hastert in their outrage. Not in the history of the Republic, they reminded everyone, has a congressional office been searched in a criminal case. The lawmakers were insisting that their goal was not to defend William Jefferson but Thomas Jefferson… as in defending the Constitution, and its Speech and Debate Clause. It's still not clear how invoking that clause automatically puts the office of a potentially criminal lawmaker out of reach.

There's more. Hastert and Co. demanded that the documents taken in the FBI search be returned to Jefferson. And as the White House weighed that, administration law-enforcement officials were incredulous. According to published reports, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and FBI Director Robert Mueller both said they would quit if they had to give back the materials taken in the search. President Bush then stepped in, ordering a 45-day cooling off period designed to buy time and soothe tempers.

At a time when the country is torn over the legality of warrantless surveillance conducted by the National Security Agency, the sight of the FBI invading a congressional office certainly should raise questions. Defenders of the search argue that it came after Jefferson had for months refused to comply with a subpoena to come up with certain documents, and that the search came with a court order.

Meanwhile, the verdict is still out over what the public thinks when it sees these congressional leaders protesting the search of Jefferson's office. Is it that they are guarding the Constitution? Or are they claiming that don't have to abide by the same rules as everyone else?

Q: There are absolutely no restrictions on the number of times that a vice president can be elected. While Dick Cheney may have no presidential ambitions, has no one seriously thought that Cheney could possibly run as vice president with Jeb Bush in 2008? — Majella Hardie, Roswell, Ga.

A: Nope.

Q: In your May 3 column, you stated that Sen. Richard Lugar (R) may become the first Indiana senator in history to run unopposed. You should know that the Indiana Democratic state committee can choose a Senate nominee. — Richard Winger, San Francisco, Calif.

A: You are correct, but as of this writing I still have yet to see any evidence that they intend to do so. I have not seen the name of any prospective Democratic candidate. The party holds its state convention on Saturday, June 3, where a nominee could come forward. By law, the Dems have until June 30; after that, Lugar has a free ride for a sixth term.

Q: I really enjoyed your take on the situation involving Rep. Cythnia McKinney (D-GA) in your May 10 column. What are the chances of Denise Majette, who defeated McKinney for her congressional seat in 2002, jumping into the race at the 11th hour? — Phillip Martin, Santa Monica, Calif.

A: None. While Majette remains the dream candidate for those who don't like McKinney, when the filing deadline came and went, she decided not to run for Congress. Instead, Majette is running for state superintendent of schools in the July Democratic primary. Majette gave up her congressional seat after one term in an unsuccessful 2004 Senate bid.

Q: In your list of New Orleans mayoral elections that featured black vs. white candidates (May 24 column), you mention 1977, 1982, 1990 and 1994. What happened to 1986? Was the election canceled for that year? — Nicholas Ohh, London, England

A: No. I excluded that one because the runoff that year was between two African-American candidates. City Councilman Sidney Barthelemy defeated state Sen. William Jefferson — yes, that William Jefferson.

Q: In your May 24 column, you wrote that the seat of Idaho Congressman Butch Otter, who is running for governor, is "likely to be filled in November by GOP state Rep. Bill Sali, a strong conservative." I disagree. Sali is too conservative, even for most Idaho Republicans. Larry Grant, the Democratic nominee, happens to be a particularly strong opponent. Look for the Republican monopoly in Idaho to be broken this year. — Bill Lawson, Boise, Idaho

A: Well, you certainly can make the case that Grant, a former VP of a Boise technology firm, has more of a united party behind him. Grant won 74 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary, compared to what happened in the GOP primary, which Sali won with 26 percent against five opponents. And Sali does not have the greatest reputation among his fellow Republicans in the state legislature; many simply don't like him. Plus, Idaho's 1st Congressional District can be unpredictable, despite its GOP leanings: Larry LaRocco, a Democrat, held the seat for two terms in the early 1990s. And Helen Chenoweth, the Republican who unseated LaRocco in '94, barely held on to win a second term in '96. So a Democratic win is not out of the cards.

FAREWELL TO LLOYD BENTSEN: A lot of nice notes regarding last week's column on the passing of former Texas Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D). It was especially nice to have Ben Barnes, a Bentsen ally and ex-Texas lieutenant governor, on the "Political Junkie" segment of Talk of the Nation last Wednesday. And some trivia as well. Scott Bill Hirst of Ashaway, R.I., writes that "as a Masonic historian, you should know that with the death of Lloyd Bentsen, George McGovern is the only living nominee for president or vice president on the Democratic side of the aisle who is a Freemason."

REMINDER: "Political Junkie" is featured every Wednesday on NPR's Talk of the Nation, a live call-in program, at 2:40 p.m. Eastern. This week: more on Congressman William Jefferson (D-LA), chances of a deal on immigration, and next week's special congressional election in California 50 to fill the seat vacated by Republican Randy "Duke" Cunningham.

Also … Check out NPR's interactive election map, highlighting every Senate, gubernatorial and key House race in the country, with early projections.

This Day in Political History: The Senate votes 63-19 to prohibit any funds for U.S. combat activity in Cambodia (May 31, 1973).

Beth Siniawsky shared this photo of herself with Lloyd Bentsen

Beth Siniawsky, a longtime Capitol Hill staffer, reminded us that she did some work for Bentsen at the 1974 Democratic "mini-convention" in Kansas City. It was at a time when the Dems were in their early stages of preparing for the 1976 elections, and Bentsen was among those preparing a White House bid. Beth writes, "Check out this great picture of the two of us — taken at the old Bellevue Stratford. He has sideburns down to the bottom of his ears!" (See photo at left.)

And Mark Richard of Columbus, Ohio, adds, "I heard you last week on NPR's Day to Day program. Kudos for being about the only commentator I've heard who has noted that Lloyd Bentsen's beautifully delivered put-down of Dan Quayle occurred in a campaign that Bentsen lost. Every media outlet will run the Democrat-pleasing sound byte of Bentsen's 'You're no Jack Kennedy' response in the senator's obituary, without taking the 'last laugh' factor into account."

Got a question? Ask Ken Rudin. E-mail politicaljunkie@npr.org.

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