Patriot Act gets six-month reprieve

    The Senate on Wednesday passed a six-month extension of the terror-fighting USA Patriot Act as a last resort after Democrats and a small group of GOP senators blocked President Bush and Republican congressional leaders’ attempt to make most of the anti-terrorism law permanent.

    Approval of the six-month extension came on a voice vote, and cleared the way for a final vote in the House possibly as early as Thursday. Sixteen provisions in the current law expire Dec. 31 unless the Congress and White House acts.

    Patriot Act critics said White House-pushed legislation did not provide enough civil liberty safeguards and blocked the Republican-controlled Senate from approving it last week.

    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.

    “This will allow more time to finally agree on a bill that protects our rights and freedoms while preserving important tools for fighting terrorism,” added Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., who was the only senator to vote against the original Patriot Act in 2001.

    Despite insisting earlier that a short-term extension of the Patriot Act would not be acceptable, Bush seemed to indicate in a late-night statement that he would sign it.

    “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.”

    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.

    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.

    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.”

    The bill’s critics gained momentum Wednesday when they released a letter crafted by Sununu and Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., showing they had 52 senators agreeing to support a three-month extension.

    “This is the right thing to do for the country,” Schumer said after the deal had been announced. “To let the Patriot Act lapse would have been a dereliction of duty.”

    President Bush, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and Republican congressional leaders have lobbied fiercely to get the House-Senate compromise passed, and issued dire warnings of what would happen if the Patriot Act expires.

    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.

    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 Wednesday. 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.

    © 2005 The Associated Press