By Charles Babington and Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, December 22, 2005
A much-debated domestic surveillance law won a reprieve last night when senators agreed to continue it for six months to allow House and Senate negotiators to resume efforts next year to rewrite it for the longer term.
Some top Democratic and Republican senators said they were confident the House would agree to the compromise to prevent major provisions of the USA Patriot Act from expiring on Dec. 31. The Senate approved the extension on a voice vote.
President Bush, who had repeatedly said he would not accept a short-term extension of the Patriot Act, embraced the Senate's action last night. "I appreciate the Senate for working to keep the existing Patriot Act in law through next July, despite boasts last week by the Democratic leader that he had blocked the Act," Bush said in a statement. "No one should be allowed to block the Patriot Act to score political points, and I am grateful the Senate rejected that approach."
Congress passed the Patriot Act after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The law makes it easier for FBI agents to monitor phone calls and e-mails, to search homes and offices, and to obtain the business records of terrorism suspects.
Critics say the proposed four-year renewal, which the House approved last week, is too slanted in the government's favor regarding national security letters and special subpoenas that give the FBI significant leeway in obtaining records. The targeted people should have a greater opportunity to challenge such subpoenas and the government should be required to show stronger evidence linking the items being sought to possible terrorism, they say. Now they have more time to press their case in the bill's rewrite.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) said he decided on the six-month extension, although he, too, had repeatedly said he would reject "short-term" extensions such as for three months. He said he had not discussed the agreement with House leaders, who plan to meet today. Frist's chief of staff, Eric Ueland, said a six-month extension is not "short-term."
The agreement to extend the Patriot Act in its existing form for six months "made the most sense," Sen. John E. Sununu (R-N.H.) told reporters moments after Senate leaders announced the breakthrough. He was among a handful of Republicans who joined most Senate Democrats in insisting that the planned four-year renewal of the law contain more civil liberties protections.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said the key to breaking the impasse was a letter -- signed earlier yesterday by 52 of the 100 senators, including eight Republicans -- that urged GOP leaders to call a truce in the battle over the act's renewal. They sought a three-month extension of the existing statute but later agreed to six months.
Bush and top Senate Republicans had repeatedly insisted on the full four-year renewal that the House passed on Dec. 14. But they could not overcome the Senate filibuster backed by Sununu, three GOP colleagues and all but two Democrats.
Bush and others have said the Patriot Act is essential to safeguarding the nation from terrorists. Nonetheless, the White House and the Senate had engaged in a week of brinkmanship, refusing to reach an accord and vowing to blame each other if the law expired.
It was unclear last night whether the House will address the six-month extension today or after Christmas. "I think it will pass the House without significant trouble," Sununu said.
"This is a common-sense solution that gives the Senate more time to craft a consensus bill that will promote our security while preserving our freedom," Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) said in a statement. "I am pleased the Republican leadership listened to a bipartisan majority of us in the Senate on this important matter that affects all Americans."
All week, Senate leaders had privately acknowledged that there was no hope of overcoming the filibuster led by Democrats and supported by four Republicans. Bush and his top appointees, however, repeatedly called on the Senate to pass the House-approved version.
Even as the 52 senators signed a letter to Frist urging a three-month extension, Bush showed no signs of yielding early yesterday. Speaking to reporters in the morning, he reiterated his demand that the Senate accept the House-passed measure. "This obstruction is inexcusable," Bush said. "The senators obstructing the Patriot Act need to understand that the expiration of this vital law will endanger America and will leave us in a weaker position in the fight against brutal killers."
Asked in the afternoon whether Bush would veto a short-term extension of the act, White House spokesman Scott McClellan referred reporters to his Dec. 16 statement that "the president has made it very clear that he is not interested in signing any short-term renewal."
House Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) has shown little willingness to renegotiate the four-year extension his chamber had approved. "Any talk of a short-term extension is fruitless," his spokesman Jeff Lungren said several hours before the Senate deal was announced. "Chairman Sensenbrenner will not accept anything less than a four-year extension of the Patriot Act."
Some lawmakers felt the White House's doggedness was grounded in GOP strategists' belief that Bush -- and Republicans in general -- would win politically if the act were to expire. "Both parties come into these kinds of battles with certain equities," said Ken Mehlman, chairman of the Republican National Committee, noting that Democrats are often seen as weaker than Republicans on national security.
At least twice, Bush has said that Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) has bragged about "killing the Patriot Act." Reid has defended his statement, made at a Democratic meeting last week, calling the House-passed version of the act unacceptable.
The four Senate Republicans who backed the filibuster are Larry E. Craig (Idaho), Chuck Hagel (Neb.), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and Sununu. They signed yesterday's letter, as did GOP Sens. Lincoln D. Chafee (R.I.), Susan Collins (Maine), Michael D. Crapo (Idaho) and Olympia J. Snowe (Maine).