WASHINGTON — Congress gave the Bush administration's anti-terrorism powers one more month of life Thursday, with work finished by a lone senator sitting in the virtually empty Senate chamber.
Congress also finalized a defense spending bill that funnels extra money to the Gulf Coast and Iraq. The GOP-run Congress completed the two bills in a scramble to finish a year complicated by standoffs with Democrats and disagreements among Republicans.
The House had passed a one-month extension of the Patriot Act on Thursday and sent it to the Senate, which passed it Thursday evening, ahead of the Dec. 31 expiration date of some anti-terror law enforcement provisions.
Approval in the House came on a voice vote in a nearly empty chamber after Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, refused to agree to a six-month extension the Senate had cleared several hours earlier.
“We’re happy to agree to a shorter-term extension of the Patriot Act. The important thing is to strike the right balance between liberty and security,” said Rebecca Kirszner, an aide to Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
The Senate passage marked the latest step in a stalemate that first pitted Republicans against Democrats in the Senate, then turned into an intramural GOP dispute.
Plea from Bush
Without action by Congress, several provisions of the law enacted in the days following the 2001 terror attacks were due to expire. Bush has repeatedly called on Congress not to let that happen.
A senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said President Bush would sign a one-month extension.
In a statement Thursday, the president said, “I will work closely with the House and Senate to make sure that we are not without this crucial law for even a day.”
The Senate vote Wednesday night marked a turnabout for GOP leaders, who had long insisted they would accept nothing less than a permanent renewal of the law. The House approved the measure earlier this month, but a Democratic-led filibuster blocked passage in the Senate, with critics arguing the bill would shortchange the civil liberties of innocent Americans.
Passage of a one-month extension means lawmakers will debate the issue early in 2006, and is certain to require concessions to the Senate critics who are seeking greater privacy protections.
The Senate's six-month extension came Wednesday night as Bush left Washington believing that Congress would not let the provisions expire.
‘We're still under threat’
“It appears to me that the Congress understands we got to keep the Patriot Act in place, that we’re still under threat,” Bush said just before boarding a helicopter headed to Camp David, Md., for a long holiday weekend with his family.
Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., who had led the Democratic filibuster against permanently renewing most of the law’s expiring provisions, said the six-month extension would “allow more time to finally agree on a bill that protects our rights and freedoms while preserving important tools for fighting terrorism.”
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.
Safeguards on the Patriot Act
Making permanent the rest of the Patriot Act powers, like the roving wiretaps that allow investigators to listen in on any telephone and tap any computer they think a target might use, has been a priority of the administration and Republican lawmakers.
Some civil liberties safeguards had been inserted into legislation for renewing that law but Senate Democrats and a small group of GOP senators blocked it anyway, arguing that more safeguards were needed.
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 Dec. 31 expiration date. “I’m not going to let the Patriot Act die,” Frist said.
Bush had indicated that he would sign the six-month 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.”
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.
NBC News and The Associated Press contributed to this report.