WASHINGTON - The terror-fighting USA Patriot Act may have a new lease on life. The GOP-controlled Senate on Wednesday approved a six-month extension of the USA Patriot Act to keep the anti-terror law from expiring on Dec. 31. President Bush gave it his grudging blessing.
The Republican-controlled House is now expected to come back and consider the legislation keeping the 16 provisions of the law passed after the terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington from expiring.
Republican leaders and Bush wanted to make most of the law permanent, but were stymied by a filibuster in the Senate and had to resort to a six-month extension.
"This will allow more time to finally agree on a bill that protects our rights and freedoms while preserving important tools for fighting terrorism," said Sen. Feingold, D-Wis., who was the only senator to vote against the original Patriot Act in 2001.
White House press secretary Scott McClellan on Thursday accused Senate Democrats of trying to score political points and appease special interests, including the American Civil Liberties Union, by blocking extension of the law. He said the temporary extension is a victory for the administration, even though it long said it would not approve anything but its permanent renewal.
"We kept Senate Democrats from killing the Patriot Act," McClellan said. "We're pleased that the existing Patriot Act is still in place."
"These vital tools will remain in place," he said, adding that the administration would continue to work to get the act reauthorized.
Most of the Patriot Act - which expanded the government's surveillance and prosecutorial powers against suspected terrorists, their associates and financiers - was made permanent when Congress overwhelmingly passed it after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington.
Making permanent the rest of the Patriot Act powers, like the roving wiretaps which allow investigators to listen in on any telephone and tap any computer they think a target might use, has been a priority of the Bush administration and Republican lawmakers.
House and Senate negotiators had agreed to compromise legislation that would have made most of the anti-terrorism law permanent and added additional safeguards to the law. But Senate Democrats and a small group of GOP senators blocked the legislation, arguing that the compromise needed more safeguards in it to protect Americans' civil liberties.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said he had no choice but to accept a six-month extension in the face of a successful filibuster and the Patriot Act's Dec. 31 expiration date. "I'm not going to let the Patriot Act die," Frist said.
Bush indicated that he would sign the extension. "The work of Congress on the Patriot Act is not finished," Bush said. "The act will expire next summer, but the terrorist threat to America will not expire on that schedule. I look forward to continuing to work with Congress to reauthorize the Patriot Act."
Frist said he had not consulted with House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., yet on the six-month extension. Senior Republicans there have opposed any temporary extension of the current law, insisting that most of the expiring provisions should be renewed permanently, but it would be difficult for the House to reject a plan agreed to by the Senate and President Bush.
The six-month "extension ensures that the tools provided to law enforcement in terrorist investigations in the Patriot Act remain in effect while Congress works out the few differences that remain," said Sen. John Sununu, R-N.H., one of a small group of Republicans who crossed party lines to block the Patriot Act legislation.
Republicans who had pushed for legislation that would make most of the expiring provisions permanent said the agreement only postpones the ongoing arguments over the Patriot Act for six months. "We'll be right back where we are right now," said a clearly frustrated Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, added, "Our intelligence and law enforcement officials should not be left wondering, yet again, whether the Congress will manage to agree to reauthorize the tools that protect our nation."
If Congress fails to renew 16 expiring provisions of the USA Patriot Act by Dec. 31, America will be less safe, Gonzales and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff warned. Chertoff said every morning he reviews threat information against the United States and lies awake at night worrying about "what's coming next."
"The threat is still very much alive," Chertoff said, referring to terror groups that want to strike the United States.