The U.S. Senate has approved a six-month extension of the anti-terrorism law, known as the Patriot Act, to allow lawmakers more time to consider stronger civil liberties' protections to the law.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist announced the deal on the Senate floor, late Wednesday night. "As part of the unanimous consent is a six-month extension of the Patriot Act."
The agreement, which must be approved by the House of Representatives and President Bush, would keep provisions of the law from expiring as scheduled, on December 31 - a scenario no lawmaker wanted to see.
"It would have been inexcusable to let this act lapse," said Democratic Senator Charles Schumer of New York.
The extension would give lawmakers more time to seek stronger civil liberties' safeguards in the law.
Legislation to renew some provisions in the law for another four years, and make many others permanent, had been blocked by a group of Democrat-led senators who were concerned the measure gave too much power to the government. These senators had sought a three-month extension, while Republican leaders had offered a one-year extension, to consider stronger civil-liberties protection. The deal is a compromise between the two proposals.
Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont - the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee - says he hopes his panel will consider the concerns about civil liberty protections in the law.
"I think this is a reasonable conclusion to allow the Judiciary Committee to look at some of the questions that have legitimately been raised, and would not have been heard had this gone through otherwise," he said.
The Patriot Act, enacted in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, expands the government's powers to track suspected terrorists.
The action on the Patriot Act capped a busy day in the Senate.
Earlier, senators unanimously (93 to zero) approved a $450 billion defense spending bill, which includes $50 billion to fund U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. It also includes money to fight a potential bird flu pandemic and for reconstruction in the hurricane-ravaged U.S. Gulf Coast.
But approval came only after a Democrat-led successful effort to strip the legislation of a provision to drill oil in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Opponents of the oil drilling measure said it had no connection to military spending and should not have been attached to the legislation. The provision's sponsor, Senator Ted Stevens, an Alaska Republican, had argued that the development of the refuge's oil fields was a matter of national security because it would help the United States reduce its dependence on oil imported from the Middle East.
The House of Representatives, which already approved the defense spending bill, will have to act on it again, as the Senate made minor changes to it.
In its first order of business Wednesday, the Senate passed legislation to cut the federal budget deficit by nearly $40 billion - but only after Vice President Dick Cheney, in his constitutional role as president of the Senate, cast a tie-breaking vote. The Senate was divided, 50-50, on the bill, forcing Mr. Cheney to cast a deciding vote for only the seventh time in his vice presidency.