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Mixed Messages From Hill on Patriot Act Talks

By Dan Eggen and Charles Babington
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, December 8, 2005

The White House is pressing House members to compromise on a key issue in negotiations over the reauthorization of the USA Patriot Act, moving Congress closer to a deal, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) said yesterday.

But talks were still going on last night amid continued opposition to some provisions by Senate Democrats. A spokesman for House Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) stressed that no final agreement had been reached.

The mixed messages underscored the often tense negotiations surrounding renewal of the anti-terrorism law, which was approved after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Sixteen provisions are due to expire on Dec. 31, and the Senate and the House have been arguing for months over legislation that would renew the law while placing new restrictions on governmental powers.

Lawmakers had appeared close to a deal before Thanksgiving, but the tentative agreement fell apart amid objections from a bipartisan group of senators to provisions that they contended would curtail civil liberties.

In a meeting with Washington Post reporters and editors yesterday, Specter said House members had agreed to allow the expiration, after four years, of provisions that give FBI agents access to library and business records and that permit roving wiretaps. The move would mark a significant concession by the House, which had won a seven-year sunset in an earlier compromise.

Specter said the latest deal "is as good as it's going to get." Later, he added: "The administration was very insistent and the House was very insistent that the Senate cannot have its way on all the points."

Specter also said that the latest proposal has the support of Sensenbrenner, who has spearheaded Patriot legislation in the House. But Sensenbrenner spokesman Jeff Lungren said there is "no conference report at this point."

"If we had a conference report, we would have filed it," Lungren said. "Until everything is agreed upon, nothing is agreed upon."

Specter described waiting in a long reception line at a White House Christmas party on Monday to talk to President Bush about the need for compromise. On Tuesday, Vice President Cheney called Sensenbrenner and urged him to accept the four-year sunset to allow the legislation to move forward, according to congressional aides who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the negotiations.

Cheney spokeswoman LeaAnne McBride declined to comment on that, but she said "the Patriot Act is a priority and the vice president has been engaged since its inception."

Specter and Senate aides said that Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) remains concerned about the provisions governing "national security letters," which the FBI uses to demand customer records from businesses such as telephone companies and Internet service providers. Recipients of such letters are required to keep the requests secret.

The legislation would allow judicial review of the letters, but critics say that other language would effectively force judges to approve them as long as the government was not acting in bad faith.

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