Patriot Act Extension Is Reduced To a Month

By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 23, 2005

The House balked yesterday at a Senate plan to extend the USA Patriot Act by six months to give Congress and President Bush more time to work out their differences, instead forcing the Senate and the administration to accept a one-month extension.

At the same time, the House approved a $460 billion defense bill that was shorn of a provision promoted by Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) that would have opened Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling. But it put off until next year final agreement on a major budget measure that would trim federal spending by nearly $40 billion over five years.

Congress finished a year in which it rebuffed Bush on many of his top priorities and showed a new willingness to assert its prerogatives after four years during which the president largely dictated the terms and sought to expand executive power at the expense of the legislative branch.

It was also a year marked by bitter infighting in a Republican caucus that had been known for exceptional discipline. Bush and GOP leaders were buffeted by unforeseen events, most of all Hurricane Katrina, that continued to consume lawmakers even as they tried to depart for the year.

One of the most contentious disputes was over whether to reauthorize the USA Patriot Act, and it appeared as if the Senate had finessed an impasse with the White House by agreeing Wednesday night to extend the existing domestic surveillance law -- set to expire on Dec. 31 -- by six months. But House Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) refused to go along with the agreement yesterday. He demanded that the House pass an extension only through Feb. 3, forcing a few senators to return to the Capitol last night to give the Senate's consent.

"The fact is that a six-month extension, in my opinion, would have simply allowed the Senate to duck the issue until the last week in June," said Sensenbrenner, who had largely prevailed in negotiations with the Senate on a new version of the anti-terrorism law, only to see the compromise blocked by a Senate filibuster. "Now they came pretty close to wrecking everybody's Christmas. I didn't want to put the entire Congress in the position of them wrecking everybody's Independence Day."

The Patriot Act was passed after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to strengthen the government's hand in combating terrorism. The administration sought to toughen some of the provisions and prevent 16 from expiring. Critics charged that the proposed renewal was too slanted in the government's favor regarding national security letters and special subpoenas that give the FBI significant leeway in obtaining records, among other concerns.

The House action was a setback for Bush, who had repeatedly said he would not accept a "short-term extension." Wednesday night's Senate action, which increased the proposed extension from three months to six, was seen in part as a way for Bush and his allies to save face while accepting the collapse of a four-year renewal of the law; they had supported its renewal and the House had passed it on Dec. 14.

Yesterday's House vote not only erased the face-saving measure, but it also forced Bush to accept the shortest extension that lawmakers had seriously considered.

Democratic lawmakers quickly hailed the House vote as a victory. Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) said: "Democrats are happy with a one-month extension of the Patriot Act. We always said that we would accept a short-term extension to give negotiators time to get the final bill right."

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (Vt.) said: "The amount of time is less important than the good-faith effort that will be needed in improving the Patriot Act to strike the right balance in respecting Americans' liberty and privacy, while protecting their security."

Eric Ueland, chief of staff to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), explained why Frist wanted a longer-term extension of the existing law. "For these investigations," he said, "a six-month extension allows the intelligence community and the Department of Justice to manage investigations without having to manage against the countdown clock."

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