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Deal extends Patriot Act by month

Congress scrambles to push through a defense bill and Gulf Coast aid.

Associated Press
Published December 23, 2005


WASHINGTON - Congress gave the Bush administration's antiterrorism 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 defense bill keeps the Pentagon running, while also channeling $29-billion in hurricane aid to the Gulf Coast and $50-billion more to military action in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Patriot Act extension keeps antiterrorism laws that were due to expire Dec. 31 in place until Feb. 3. It allows the FBI to continue to investigate terrorism cases using powers granted in 2001, including roving wiretaps and the authority to intercept wire, spoken, and electronic communications relating to terrorism.

The Senate, with only Sen. John Warner, R-Va., present, approved the expiration date four hours after the House, with a nearly empty chamber, bowed to Rep. James Sensenbrenner's refusal to agree to a six-month extension. Congressional rules allow bills to pass without a recorded vote as long as no lawmaker objects.

House approval sent the defense bill to the president, including its $3.8-billion for bird flu preparedness and liability protections for flu drug manufacturers. The $29-billion for the Gulf Coast included $11.5-billion for community grants to spur economic development, along with aid for schools and money to start shoring up New Orleans' levees.

Bush applauded Congress' passage of the troop-funding bill and said he looks forward to signing it.

But it will not be the Christmas present the administration wished for after Republicans earlier lost a quarter-century campaign to open the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling.

That drilling authority was stripped out of the bill. The change also eliminated roughly $2-billion in emergency aid for low-income families facing high heating bills this winter.

Three of the Senate's Northeast Republicans secured a promise from GOP and Democratic leaders to enact $2-billion in emergency funding for heating assistance in January, after the Senate votes on Samuel Alito's nomination to the Supreme Court.

Lawmakers also could find themselves debating the Patriot Act anew in January after putting the law on a short leash, extending it to Feb. 3, instead of the six months originally planned. The Senate reconvenes Jan. 18 and the House Jan. 26.

Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., said he didn't trust the Senate to act swiftly no matter how long the extension, so he pushed for one as short as possible. He said the White House and House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., concurred.

Bush and Republican leaders had insisted the law be permanently extended before its scheduled expiration, but they were stymied by a Senate filibuster and criticisms that the legislation failed to protect the civil liberties of innocent Americans.

House and Senate Democrats said they had no problem with the shorter extension.

The White House also will get an empty budget stocking from the GOP-controlled Congress this year as Republican leaders were forced to postpone completion of a promised deficit-reduction package curbing the growth of federal programs like Medicare and Medicaid.