President Bush has stepped in to calm a constitutional dispute between Congress and federal authorities over documents seized from the office of a congressman under investigation for corruption. The action came amid negotiations between Congressional leaders and government officials over the materials.
The president says he recognizes the deeply-held views of Congress and the Justice Department over the documents seized from the office of House Democratic Congressman William Jefferson.
Referring to what he calls a dilemma the government has not faced in 2.5 centuries, he ordered the documents sealed for 45 days.
This, the president says, will give both sides in the dispute more time to resolve the issues in a way that ensures that materials relevant to the ongoing criminal investigation of Congressman Jefferson are made available to prosecutors in a manner that respects the interests of a coequal branch of government.
Congressional leaders had been discussing the status of the documents with Justice Department officials and the White House.
Earlier this week, House Speaker, Dennis Hastert, and the House Democratic minority leader, Nancy Pelosi, issued an unprecedented joint statement demanding their return.
They accused federal authorities of violating the principle of separation of powers, as well as the speech or debate clause of the U.S. Constitution, which provides immunity to lawmakers, while they are engaged in legislative acts.
The Justice Department insists it acted properly, and took great care in compiling a lengthy affidavit, seeking court approval for a search warrant and carrying out the search of the office.
Congressman Jefferson has not been charged with any crime, but has been under investigation since last year. He denies any wrongdoing and had demanded that the FBI return the documents it seized.
The unusual bipartisan display of unity by House leaders on the issue did not please many lawmakers, such as Massachusetts Democrat Barney Frank.
"It [the speech and debate clause in the Constitution] ought to be construed narrowly," said Barney Frank. "It should not in any way be interpreted as meaning that we, as members of Congress, have legal protections superior to those of the average citizen. So, I think it was a grave error to have criticized the FBI. I think, what they did, they ought to be able to do in any case where they can get a warrant from a judge."
Lawmakers have been walking a fine line between supporting a law enforcement investigation and the sensitive issue of corruption, and their obligation to defend constitutional principles.
House Majority Leader John Boehner addressed the issue on Thursday:
"There are conversations under way about the speech and debate clause and how we protect the Constitution," said John Boehner. "Every two years, I stand in the well of the House, and raise my right hand, and swear to uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States. While we are not going to harbor any information that could be helpful in a criminal investigation, there is a Constitution that we are all sworn to uphold."
In the Senate, Republican David Vitter sent a letter to Majority Leader Bill Frist complaining about the joint statement by House leaders.
Vitter elaborated in a Thursday news conference.
"I think this outcry from congressional leaders just looks self-serving and defensive to the American people," said David Vitter. "And, I think, it is further eroding confidence in Congress, at a time when it is already very, very low because of these scandals, things like the [former Congressman] Duke Cunningham scandal, and, now, allegations, of course not proven yet, allegations about Congressman Jefferson."
Congressman Jefferson had filed a motion this week in court to force the Justice Department to return his documents.
President Bush has ordered that they remain with the U.S. Solicitor General during the 45-day seal period.
The controversy will continue next week, as the House Judiciary Committee is to hold a hearing to examine what its Republican Chairman called troubling constitutional questions raised by the FBI search of Jefferson's office.