Deal extends Patriot Act

Congress OKs $453.3 billion for wars, Katrina and avian flu

December 23, 2005|By SHERYL GAY STOLBERG | SHERYL GAY STOLBERG,THE NEW YORK TIMES

WASHINGTON -- In a frantic finish before adjourning for the year, the House and Senate voted yesterday to extend the broad anti-terrorism bill known as the USA Patriot Act by five weeks.

The deal keeps the law from expiring while setting the stage for a partisan clash over civil liberties and national security when lawmakers return to Washington early next year.

The extension was approved by voice vote in sparsely attended sessions in the two chambers.

The action on the anti-terrorism law was taken after the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., a Wisconsin Republican, had threatened to derail a six-month extension passed by the Senate late Wednesday night.

As it wrapped up business for the year, Congress also gave final approval to a $453.3 billion military spending bill that included $50 billion for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, $29 billion in new aid for hurricane victims, $3.8 billion to prepare for a possible outbreak of avian flu and a government-wide 1 percent spending cut.

The Republican leadership stripped out language for $2 billion in extra assistance for low-income people to pay home heating bills.

Extending the Patriot Act provided the real drama. It was the final twist in a six-day game of brinksmanship between President Bush and Senate Democrats who, joined by a handful of Republicans, had blocked a bill to make permanent the original act, passed after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Bush, who said making the act permanent is essential to protecting against another attack, issued a statement saying that he would "work closely with the House and Senate to make sure that we are not without this crucial law for even a day."

The deadline for reauthorizing the bill was moved, from Dec. 31 to Feb. 3, timing that could prove a problem for the White House.

It means that a debate on the law, which broadly expands government surveillance and investigative powers, would be in full swing at the same time as the Senate starts an inquiry into a secret domestic spying program run by the National Security Agency.

Lawmakers on both sides of the issue say the measure and the spying program are inextricably intertwined.

"I think there will be a compromise on the Patriot Act," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat, who voted to block permanent renewal in part because of the disclosures about the spying program.

"I think there will be a consensus bill, but it will have to lean a little bit more to the civil liberties side," Schumer said.

Sen. Olympia J. Snowe, a Maine Republican, said: "I think there will be a lot of questions that have to be answered with respect to the domestic surveillance. It's all interfaced. So, I think perhaps it's appropriate that all these issues will merge."

Debate over the Patriot Act has inflamed passions among civil liberties advocates, who argue that the law allows too much government intrusion into personal privacy.

With the 16 major provisions of the original act scheduled to expire Dec. 31, Congress has spent months drafting measures to renew and update the original law.

Last week, the House passed a measure, with Sensenbrenner `s strong backing, to make 14 of the 16 expiring provisions permanent and to add more safeguards to protect civil liberties.

But that bill, the product of a House-Senate conference, was bottled up in the Senate, which prompted the six-month extension that it passed Wednesday night on a voice vote.

Sensenbrenner balked at the Senate action, and he had the power to derail it.

Under House rules, the six-month extension had to pass unanimously, without any objections. But by early yesterday afternoon, the White House stepped in, and Sensenbrenner relented, agreeing to five weeks.

He said he did so only because White House officials told him that Bush would convene a special session of Congress next week if he did not. He was asked whether he was seeking retribution.

"It's not retribution," Sensenbrenner told reporters. "I've spent the better part of this year holding 11 hearings on the Patriot Act."

Its future is unclear. Sen. Russell D. Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat and leading backer of the filibuster, said in a statement yesterday that the conference measure would have to change.

"That bill is dead," Feingold said, "and cannot be revived."

The Patriot Act debate was hardly the sole partisan scuffle, on a day when Congress remained in session even as lawmakers seemed desperate to adjourn for the year.

In the House, a $40 billion budget-cutting measure, also passed by the Senate on Wednesday, ran into a roadblock when the Democratic leader, Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, rebuffed an entreaty from Speaker Dennis Hastert, an Illinois Republican, to consent to its consideration.

The move forces the House to take up the budget when it comes back into session next year.

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