The House is examining whether the FBI's raid on a lawmaker's office violated the Constitution even as Senate leaders are backing off their criticism and the Bush administration is negotiating guidelines for any such future searches.
For all of the shifting landscape, House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., a loyal White House ally, made his position clear with the title of Tuesday's hearing: "Reckless Justice: Did the Saturday Night Raid of Congress Trample the Constitution?"
The hearing comes more than a week after the FBI conducted an overnight raid of the offices of Rep. William Jefferson, D-La., as part of a bribery investigation, without giving House leaders advance notice. House Speaker Dennis Hastert and Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi issued a rare joint statement last week protesting the raid as a violation of constitutional separation of powers protections.
Sensenbrenner, said to be among the most exasperated House members by the May 20 raid, cut the Bush administration a break by holding the hearing during Congress' Memorial Day recess when Capitol Hill is a virtual ghost town.
"It is about the ability of the Congress to be able to do its job free of coercion from the executive branch," Sensenbrenner said over the weekend on NBC's Meet the Press.
The tough talk belied the behind-the-scenes negotiations between House Republicans and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales in the wake of President Bush's order last week that the seized materials be sealed for 45 days while the dispute is resolved.
House and Justice Department lawyers are trying to agree on guidelines for any future searches in criminal investigations _ including the FBI's influence-peddling probe centered around convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
Across the Capitol meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., joined his Democratic counterpart, Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, over the weekend in declining to criticize the FBI for the raid. Frist said he does not believe the law enforcement agency violated the separation of powers.
Bush administration officials were not invited to Tuesday's hearing, preventing Democrats a televised opportunity to beat up on the White House during a midterm election year.
Lawmakers have been careful, however, to avoid defending Jefferson or appear to be asking for special legal treatment.