House Passes One-Month Extension of Patriot Act

By Charles Babington and Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, December 22, 2005; 7:15 PM

The House of Representatives agreed to extend a controversial domestic surveillance law this afternoon, but it limited the extension to a little over one month and rejected a carefully brokered compromise from the Senate that had given the law a six-month reprieve.

Top Senate aides said they believed the Senate would endorse the House plan tonight.

President Bush, who had earlier rejected a three-month extension and yesterday embraced the six-month deal, issued a statement this evening saying, "I appreciate the strong commitment by the majority of the House and of the Senate to re-authorize the Patriot Act. . . . I will work closely with the House and Senate to make sure that we are not without this crucial law for even a day."

Major provisions of the Patriot Act are set to expire Dec. 31, but under the House plan, they would remain in effect until Feb. 3.

Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, offered the change to a one-month extension, and the Democrats did not object.

After the House vote, Sensenbrenner, who is a strong supporter of the Patriot Act, said he made the change in an effort to force the Senate to act quickly on a long-term version of the bill.

"A six-month extension, in my opinion, would have simply allowed the Senate to duck the issue until the last week in June," Sensenbrenner told reporters, according to the Associated Press.

Bush, who had repeatedly said he would not accept a short-term extension of the Patriot Act, said in a statement: "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. 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.

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.

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