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."
Despite the confused and discordant conclusion to this year's session of Congress, acting House Majority Leader Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) struck a positive note, rattling off the House's accomplishments.
The House passed and sent to Bush yesterday a $460 billion defense spending bill that includes $50 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, $29 billion in new hurricane aid, $3.8 billion for bird flu preparedness and a 1 percent, government-wide spending cut, which excludes veterans programs.
Congress also completed work this week on a defense policy bill that asserts congressional will in matters of war almost for the first time since the Sept. 11 attacks. The measure would ban cruel and degrading interrogation methods and would limit the legal rights of detainees in military facilities.
Other achievements cited by Blunt include revising the nation's bankruptcy laws; approving the largest highway and public works bill in history; passing an energy bill that had been sought by Bush for four years; approving the Central American Free Trade Agreement; winning House passage of a budget measure that would slow spending on entitlement programs such as Medicaid; and approving new, get-tough legislation on illegal immigration.
"When you look at what we set out for ourselves at the first of the year, even with Katrina and everything that had to be added after August, it's hard not to say the House finished the year hitting all of our objectives," Blunt said.
But congressional experts and former Republican lawmakers say that, despite those accomplishments, the year will be remembered more for the indictment of former House majority leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) in September and the ensuing leadership discord, the growing stain of embattled Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff, and the chaotic conclusion that kept Congress in active legislative session longer than in any year since 1987.
In the final weeks of the legislative session, Republican leaders had to deal with conservatives rebelling over hurricane aid spending, GOP moderates balking at oil drilling and cuts to anti-poverty programs, and civil libertarians from both parties objecting to key provisions of the Patriot Act compromise.
"If you look at the whole, they didn't have a bad year," said former representative Vin Weber (R-Minn.), who remains influential with congressional Republicans. "But, unfortunately, what matters politically is not the whole, but the end. And the end didn't end very well."
Some Republican political strategists were sanguine yesterday about the coming year, when midterm elections will loom large but fortunes may improve, especially in Iraq. Former representative Bill Paxon (R-N.Y.), an influential political tactician, said the president's approval ratings are rising and voter perceptions of the economy are steadily improving.
Others are not so positive. Former DeLay aide Michael Scanlon has already agreed to cooperate with federal prosecutors looking into Abramoff's relationships with members of Congress. Now Abramoff himself is nearing a plea agreement that could turn him against at least a dozen lawmakers and congressional aides. Weber said House leaders should view the investigation with "paramount seriousness."
"It's the cumulative effect of all of this, whether it is scandal, or failure to get an agenda enacted or questions in the paper every day about unauthorized wiretaps and the failure of Congress to get involved," fretted another former Republican congressman, Mickey Edwards (Okla.). "It's all adding up to a pretty serious situation."
Staff writer Charles Babington contributed to this report.