After days of intense political debate and maneuvering over the nation's primary anti-terrorism law, Congress has sent President Bush legislation to extend the Patriot Act by five weeks. Final action came after the House of Representatives rejected an earlier Senate vote to extend the law by six months.
After the Senate voted this past Wednesday for the six-month extension, the result of intense negotiations between Senate Republicans and Democrats, the Patriot Act went back to the House, and there the agreement hit a major roadblock.
The Republican chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, James Sensenbrenner, objected, saying the Senate was shirking its responsibility to Americans to uphold a version of the law he played a key role in moving through legislative hurdles in the House.
The move was surprising, given the work Senate Republicans and Democrats had put into crafting the longer extension compromise earlier in the week.
Mr. Sensenbrenner explained his objections in a news conference late Thursday.
"The security of the American people must not be held hostage to the partisan brinkmanship of a minority of obstructionist senators," he said. "It is imperative that the House passed Patriot Act conference report be considered and passed by the Senate in a timely manner, to ensure that our nation's law enforcement and intelligence communities are provided the tools necessary to detect and defeat terrorist threats."
Wielding significant power as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Congressman Sensenbrenner has made the case for months that the legislation he shepherded through the House was vastly improved since Congress passed the law after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The Bush administration and congressional Republicans point to some 30 changes they say were put in in response to critics who say the Patriot Act harms civil liberties.
The late Thursday rejection of the six-month extension by the Republican-controlled House threw the issue back to the Senate, also controlled by Republicans.
Since most members of both chambers had already left Washington, it was left to Republican Senator John Warner to preside over the briefest of Senate sessions to put the Senate stamp on extending the law until February 3.
That Senate's action sent the legislation to President Bush, who had urged Congress in the strongest terms to approve a permanent extension of the 16 key provisions of the law, which would have expired at the end of the year.
These involve such things as telephone wiretaps, computer and internet records, business and library records, and strengthened law enforcement capabilities.
Both the House and Senate have procedures for approving legislation with few lawmakers present, provided no one from either chamber objects.
Although there is much support for the expanded powers and legal tools the Patriot Act gives law enforcement authorities in the war on terrorism, it continues to be criticized by groups, which say it leaves too much room for abuses of civil liberties, something the Bush administration denies.
Congressman Sensenbrenner criticized Senate Democrats, who led a filibuster of the Patriot Act in the Senate, supported by some Republicans, putting an end to hopes for a permanent extension of key provisions.
However, as the legislation went to President Bush for his signature, some Democratic lawmakers predicted the shortened extension, which will force the issue to the top of the Senate agenda in mid-January, is not likely to change the tone of, or shorten the debate.
The House of Representatives does not return to work until the end of January.
In other end-of-session action Thursday] the House approved a $453 billion defense bill containing $50 billion for U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But this was passed without a provision sought by President Bush and Republicans, but defeated in the Senate, to allow oil exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.
Lawmakers included about $29 billion for hurricane disaster relief for the U.S. Gulf Coast.
The House did not act on another bill, also a priority of President Bush and Republicans, and which the Senate narrowly approved on Wednesday, cutting government spending by about $40 billion.
House Democrats rejected an appeal from majority Republicans to allow for quick passage of this bill, saying it contained provisions that would harm the ability of elderly and middle income Americans to obtain health care, among other things.