WASHINGTON -- Representative James Sensenbrenner said yesterday that he will summon Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and FBI Director Robert Mueller before his House panel to testify about their decision to search a lawmaker's office.
"I want to have Attorney General Gonzales and FBI Director Mueller up here to tell us how they reached the conclusion they did," said Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican who is one of President Bush's most loyal House allies.
Gonzales has said the search of Representative William Jefferson's office was legal and necessary because the Louisiana Democrat had not cooperated with investigators' efforts to gain access to evidence in a bribery probe. An affidavit on which the search warrant was based said investigators had found $90,000 stashed in the freezer of Jefferson's house.
"We would certainly consider a request for a hearing if one were to be made," said Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse.
"We also hope that Congress recognizes it would [be] inappropriate for a federal official to discuss the specific details of an ongoing criminal investigation in a public hearing."
Even as Sensenbrenner, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, announced his hard line on the administration, congressional and Justice Department lawyers were working behind the scenes to agree on guidelines for any future searches Elsewhere in Congress, lawmakers who had once criticized the May 20 search of Jefferson's of- fice were backing off. Still others from both parties defended the search, saying an affidavit outlined charges that the Louisiana Democrat may have accepted bribes.
"I am extremely disappointed that some in this body, including the speaker and the minority leader, feel that somehow our actions are sacrosanct and above public scrutiny," said Representative Ginny Brown-Waite, Republican of Florida. "Congress is hiding behind a shield that is not available to the average American."
Majority leader Bill Frist, Republican of Tennessee, during the weekend backed off his statement of concern over the search after meeting with Gonzales Friday.
Senator Christopher Dodd, Democrat of Connecticut, said that there was precedent for one branch of government searching the quarters of another in a criminal investigation.
Jefferson, an eight-term congressman, has denied wrongdoing.
The Justice Department filed court papers yesterday opposing the congressman's demand that property seized in the office raid be returned. Such a step would be "fundamentally inconsistent with the bedrock principle that 'the laws of this country allow no place or employment as a sanctuary for crime,' " the papers said, quoting language from a Supreme Court case nearly a century old.
"They didn't get it right this time," Sensenbrenner said during the first session, titled "Reckless Justice: Did the Saturday Night Raid of Congress Trample the Constitution?" Democrats supported the hearing and the prospect of a thorough, televised questioning of the Bush administration.
"We've never been told why the search had to be done in the middle of the night," said the committee's ranking Democrat, John Conyers of Michigan. "We've never learned why the member in question was not permitted to have his attorneys present while his office was searched for some 18 hours."
The hearing comes more than one week after the FBI conducted an overnight raid of Jefferson's suite in the Rayburn House Office Building as part of a bribery investigation.
House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert and Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi issued a joint statement last week protesting the raid as a violation of constitutional separation of powers protections.