Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Pressure on Hastert Leads to Change in Tone

Well, apparently Speaker Hastert is being pressured by some in the House Republican Conference to change his tone on the FBI raid and the Jefferson investigation. Michelle also provides a nice roundup of the response from the conservative blogosphere. As on immigration, it's clear that some in Congress are out of touch with the base on this.

Anyway, Roll Call (subscription required) reports on the pressure on Hastert:

Hastert Hears Grumbling
May 30, 2006
By Ben Pershing,
Roll Call Staff

A week that began with Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) harshly criticizing the Justice Department for its raid of Rep. William Jefferson’s (D-La.) office ended Friday with Hastert hearing dissent from members of his own Conference, some of whom worry that the controversy will hurt the GOP politically.
The substantive fight between Hastert, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and the Justice Department over the constitutionality of the May 20 raid by the FBI appeared to have subsided by Friday, after President Bush ordered the records seized from Jefferson’s office to be sealed, and both sides pledged to negotiate a settlement.

But to some critics of Hastert’s strong stance, the damage was already done, with a substantial number of Republican Members and aides worried that the public would take the fight as evidence that Congress was trying to protect its own Members from scrutiny.

Florida Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite (R) was the most forceful public critic, issuing a statement Friday morning saying, “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.”

In a subsequent telephone interview Friday, Brown-Waite explained that she put out her statement because Hastert’s stance “just really, really bothered me and I thought I had to express very very strongly my concerns about it.”

“I tried to step back from the wonderful play-world of Washington, D.C., and think about how it looks to the average person,” Brown-Waite said. “It absolutely looks as if we are worthy — which I don’t believe — of special treatment. That really is what I believe is what the argument is all about. ... I don’t think that our offices should be a haven for illegal activities.”

In addition to her press statement, Brown-Waite also spoke up at a closed-door Republican Conference meeting Thursday afternoon. A handful of other lawmakers echoed her concerns, while some Members defended Hastert’s actions.

...In making his stance against the FBI raid, Hastert has been stuck between his two roles — that of the constitutional officer in charge of the House, and that of the leader of House Republicans.

While his actions make sense to many Members in the context of that first role, some lawmakers and aides outside of his office have questioned whether he has served the Conference well in the second role by taking a stand that likely will not resonate well with the public.

Even within the Republican leadership, the issue has become a point of debate at Member- and staff-level strategy meetings, according to several sources, with some staffers arguing that Hastert and his aides should not have made their fight so high-profile and public.

By the end of last week, Hastert was tempering his rhetoric, especially after Bush announced his decision to seal the records. In a USA Today editorial published Friday, Hastert praised Bush’s decision and said, “The issue that has concerned me, as Speaker, since Saturday night is not if the FBI should be able to search a member of Congress’ office, but rather how to do it within the boundaries of the Constitution.”

Hastert also emphasized that, “If the information we have read about the behavior of [Jefferson] seems as obvious to a jury as it does to me, he deserves to be vigorously prosecuted. I do not want to do anything that will interfere with that prosecution.”

Hastert and other leaders have made clear that they should and will preface any further comments about the FBI raid with that type of statement, so it does not appear that they are actually trying to shield anyone from prosecution.

“Everyone agrees that we should not look like we are on the side of Congressman Jefferson, and we need to do a better job of communicating that we think the Justice Department needs to get to the bottom of the matter,” said a Republican leadership aide.

As for the substantive fight with the Justice Department, both sides intend to use the 45 days during which the Jefferson records will be sealed to try to reach a deal on how to proceed.

Congressmen and their staffs ought to pay more attention to the blogosphere. Bloggers and readers of blogs are precisely the sort of intensely politically-interested people who turn out in droves in primaries. Undoubtedly there are lunatics and yahoos among us, but that defines the turnout in primaries. Being aware of what's being blogged, and being prepared to react to it, is the most efficient shortcut to communicating with the base that has ever existed.

Anyway, I get the sense that Representative Ginny Brown Waite has qualified for my political play of the week award.

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