Patriot Act Extension Is Cut From 6 Months to 5 Weeks

Times Staff Writers

The chairman of the House Judiciary Committee refused Thursday to accept a Senate decision to extend expiring provisions of the Patriot Act for six months, giving his approval to only a five-week extension.

The much shorter extension passed by voice vote in a near-empty House and by unanimous consent hours later in the Senate, with just one lawmaker -- Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), who lives nearby -- present.

It effectively puts off until late January a showdown over the controversial legislation, which was passed in the weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to grant law enforcement sweeping new powers to investigate terrorism suspects.

If the president, as expected, signs the extension, it will expire Feb. 3.

The move by the House Judiciary Committee chairman, Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), was the latest round in an especially fierce battle of wills over the Patriot Act, which first pitted Republicans against Democrats and ended up this week as a clash between House and Senate Republicans.


Sensenbrenner had been expected to accept the Senate’s six-month extension, and his actions caught members of both parties in both chambers off-guard.

Senate Democrats and a handful of Republican allies had stalled the bill with a filibuster since last week.

Speaking privately, GOP aides said that as negotiations intensified in recent days between the White House and Senate leaders over how to break the filibuster, Sensenbrenner was sidelined.

“This is Chairman Sensenbrenner’s way of saying, ‘Don’t leave me out of negotiations on the Patriot Act,’ ” one aide said.

All sides say they wish to renew 16 controversial sections of the 2001 act that were set to expire Dec. 31, but they disagree about how to do it.

A hard-fought compromise this month between the House and Senate versions of the bill would have made 14 of the 16 expiring provisions permanent. Last Friday, four Senate Republicans joined 43 Senate Democrats to filibuster that version of the bill -- supported strongly by Sensenbrenner -- arguing that it encroached on Americans’ civil liberties.

Sensenbrenner said Thursday that he would refuse any changes to the compromise version, known as the conference report.

“I will take the Democratic senators who filibustered the conference report at their word that they do not want the Patriot Act to expire,” Sensenbrenner said. “I also hope Democratic senators will evaluate this vital national security issue on its merits and not view it as a Washington power struggle.”

Senate Democrats and their Republican allies called Sensenbrenner’s five-week extension a victory, saying that they had argued all along for a short extension and that Senate Republicans had pushed for a longer one.

“Democrats are happy with a one-month extension of the Patriot Act,” said Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic leader. “We always said that we would accept a short-term extension to give negotiators time to get the final bill right.”

“Our goal was always to have a brief extension that would allow us to work through the remaining issues,” said Sen. John E. Sununu of New Hampshire, one of the four Republicans who broke with their party to oppose the bill in its current form. “This will force us to work a little more diligently, but I think we can handle it.”

Ironically, after accepting the need for an extension, Senate Republicans had argued for making it as long as possible. Sensenbrenner took the opposite tack of trying to make it as short as possible.

“A six-month extension, in my opinion, would have simply allowed the Senate to duck the issue until the last week in June,” he said.

Critics of the Patriot Act insisted that the shorter time frame would not make compromise more likely.

“No one should make the mistake of thinking that a shorter extension will make it possible to jam the unacceptable conference report through the Congress,” said Sen. Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.), one of the leaders of the filibuster. “That bill is dead and cannot be revived.”

The Patriot Act was designed to break down walls between law enforcement and intelligence in an effort to better track and prosecute terrorist suspects. Proponents say the looser rules have made it possible to thwart attacks; critics say the law erodes privacy rights.

“A longer extension might have permitted more time for lawmakers to continue discussing reforms to the Patriot Act, but the short deadline may help focus this discussion on the need for real reforms to protect the privacy and freedoms of innocent Americans,” said Caroline Fredrickson, legislative director of the American Civil Liberties Union.

The Patriot Act extension was not the only piece of legislation to be caught in disputes -- both between the parties and within the Republican congressional leadership -- after the House and the Senate had all but adjourned for the holidays.

The House, using expedited procedures that required the presence of only three of its 434 members, passed and sent to the White House a bill to fund the Defense Department for the 2006 fiscal year, which began Oct. 1. The House had passed the bill with a section authorizing oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, but the Senate was unable to break a filibuster against the drilling provision and sent the bill back to the House without it.

Senate Democrats also made minor modifications in a major spending-cut bill, again forcing further House action.

But House Democrats, hoping they could kill the bill, refused to use the expedited procedures and insisted instead on action by the full House, which is scheduled to go back into regular session Jan. 31.

Ron Bonjean, a spokesman for House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), accused the Senate Democrats of “playing politics” with the bill and said their tactics would delay the effective dates of some programs Democrats favor, such as aid to Hurricane Katrina victims and money to help low-income families pay their heating bills.

Liberal interest groups responded that the Senate had done far more damage to the heating-bill program when it stripped a $2-billion increase for the program from the military spending bill at the same time that it knocked out Alaska oil drilling.

Without the extra money, said Robert Greenstein, president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, there would be less money for the program this winter than last, even though natural gas and heating oil prices have soared.

“Many families will have to choose between heating their homes adequately and feeding their families or otherwise meeting immediate needs,” Greenstein said.

Mark Wolfe, executive director of the National Energy Assistance Directors’ Assn., said fuel prices had more than doubled since 2002 and predicted that utilities would cut off many families for failing to pay their bills.

“What we’re looking at,” Wolfe said, “is a potential crisis.”