Friday, December 23, 2005

Congress agreed last night to extend the USA Patriot Act for five weeks, guaranteeing that the nasty fight over civil liberties protections will resume soon after the new year.

The reauthorization, good through Feb. 3, came after a week of acrimonious debate and eight days before key provisions of the anti-terrorism law were set to expire Dec. 31.

The fight began with a filibuster and ended yesterday after a senior House Republican rejected a Senate plan to extend current law for six months.

“The Senate chose to punt the issue until next year by passing a six-month extension of the Patriot Act that contains none of the important civil liberty safeguards carefully negotiated by House and Senate conferees and included in the Patriot Act conference report,” House Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., Wisconsin Republican, said yesterday afternoon.

“I am pleased that today’s House passage and the Senate’s expected passage later today of this five-week extension will give the Senate enough time to fully debate and consider the conference report,” he said.

The Patriot Act extension was among a handful of final — though fairly major — items Congress resolved yesterday during rushed sessions that lasted less than an hour and featured only a few key members on both sides.

The House also cleared for the president’s signature a $453.5 billion defense-spending bill, minus the contentious oil-drilling provision that the Senate stripped from the legislation Wednesday. Left unfinished was a bill to cut $39.7 billion from entitlement programs, though Congress is expected to approve it next year.

But it was the Patriot Act that caused the most consternation.

“It is encouraging that Senate leaders, then the president and now House leaders have eventually come to agree with us about the value of taking more time to make the Patriot Act better,” said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat and ranking minority member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “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.”

During a press conference yesterday, Mr. Sensenbrenner did not conceal his contempt for the Democrats who had filibustered the conference report agreed on by House and Senate negotiators to extend the law for four years, with new civil liberties protections.

“I will take the Democratic senators who filibustered the conference report at their word that they do not want the Patriot Act to expire,” he said.

“[Senate Minority Leader Harry] Reid’s boast of killing the Patriot Act notwithstanding, I also hope that the Democratic senators will view this vital national security issue on its merits and not view it as a Washington power struggle,” he said. “The security of the American people must not be held hostage to the partisan brinkmanship of a minority of obstructionist senators.”

Some of Mr. Sensenbrenner’s scorn was reserved for the entire Senate, which had failed to get even a final vote on the Patriot Act. He said the Republican-controlled chamber waits until the final week to work on major legislation and he offered to give its leaders a few time-management lessons “as a Christmas present.”

Activity on Capitol Hill yesterday was strangely quiet and swift as both chambers were forced to reconvene with only a small number of members to clear up final business for the year.

Facing a Democratic filibuster, the Senate had stripped Arctic National Wildlife Refuge drilling from the final bill before approving it Wednesday, meaning the House had to repass the legislation, which it did by unanimous consent.

The bill also contains $29 billion for hurricane relief, $3.8 billion to combat avian flu and a 1 percent across-the-board cut in discretionary programs other than veterans’ ones.

House Republicans yesterday were forced to postpone final approval of their budget-cuts bill, which would collect $39.7 billion in savings from entitlement programs. It is a top priority of conservatives, who have pushed their party to rein in spending.

The House passed the budget measure Monday but must pass it again because Senate Democrats, in a procedural move Wednesday, altered the bill by striking a few minor sections.

House Democrats yesterday refused to allow unanimous approval of the bill, as House Republican leaders requested, thus forcing a formal vote on the bill, probably when lawmakers return next month.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, said the delay “will give the American people and members on both sides of the aisle the opportunity to fully scrutinize the massive impact of this bill.”

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