Senate gains deal, extends Patriot Act

Republicans give in, agree to 6-month extension

December 22, 2005|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON --With time running short on Capitol Hill, the Senate breathed new life into the moribund USA Patriot Act late yesterday, agreeing to extend the broad anti-terror law for six months to give lawmakers time to resolve differences on an updated version.

A White House official said President Bush, who had expressed staunch opposition earlier to any measure extending the law for only a short period, would agree to the Senate's action. But it was unclear whether the House would do so.

There was no formal vote in the Senate on extending the Patriot Act. Rather, the measure was presented as part of a broader package of bills headed for passage last night. The agreement followed a day of frantic negotiations in the Capitol and a stern admonition from Bush, who warned that the nation would be vulnerable to a terrorist attack if the act's major provisions expired at the end of the month as scheduled.

"The terrorists still want to hit us again," Bush said. "There is an enemy that lurks, a dangerous group of people that want to do harm to the American people, and we must have the tools necessary to protect the American people."

Sixteen provisions of the Patriot Act, which greatly expanded the government's surveillance and investigative powers in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, are set to expire Dec. 31. The House passed an updated version of the 2001 law last week, but that measure became bottled up in the Senate, where Democrats, joined by four Republicans, blocked it last week, arguing it did not do enough to protect civil liberties.

Yesterday, with lawmakers eager to leave town for their holiday break but uneasy about letting the law lapse, a majority of the Senate - 52 members, including eight Republicans - signed a letter calling for the statute to be extended for three months to give the two sides time to work out their differences.

One of the eight Republicans, Sen. Susan M. Collins of Maine, chairwoman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said she was so concerned about the impending expiration that she asked Bush to support the three-month extension during a phone call Tuesday on an unrelated matter.

The letter prompted a round of hurried negotiations on a day in which the Senate majority leader, Bill Frist of Tennessee, was scrambling to wrap up a broad swath of legislation that included military spending, Arctic oil drilling, immunity from lawsuits for vaccine manufacturers, and spending for jobs, health and education programs.

The Patriot Act has provoked a passionate fight over how to strike the correct balance between national security and protection of civil liberties. Both sides seemed to agree that having a law was better than not having one. But they differed deeply on how much latitude the government should have in searching homes and obtaining business, medical and library records of terrorism suspects.

"What we're trying to do is achieve a balanced and effective Patriot Act, one that promotes our security and preserves our freedom, a bill that's going to earn and deserve the widespread support of the American people," said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, who led a the filibuster against the House bill and pushed for extension of the existing law. "Our goal is to mend it or extend it, not end it."

For a time yesterday, the president and Frist publicly held fast against any short-term extension. Frist said yesterday morning that he remained "very hopeful" that the Senate would approve the House measure, but by early afternoon he was in the thick of negotiations, and leading players in the debate could be seen in animated conversation on the Senate floor.

Among them were Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and two Republican opponents of the conference bill, Sens. Larry E. Craig of Idaho and John E. Sununu of New Hampshire.

Earlier, Sununu had complained that Bush administration officials, in particular Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, had pushed the Patriot Act to the brink of expiration by not becoming fully engaged in the Senate discussions.

Gonzales had lobbied fiercely in favor of the House-Senate compromise.

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