Dems score wins as Congress calls it a year

The Republican-led U.S. Congress on Thursday sent President George W. Bush its last legislation for the year after Democrats scored unexpected victories on spending, anti-terrorism legislation and the environment.

On a day of chaotic wrangling between parties and the two houses of Congress, the U.S. Senate gave final passage to a five-week extension of the USA Patriot Act that buys Democrats time to press for more civil-liberties safeguards in the counterterrorism law.

It acted after the House of Representatives scaled back a six-month extension initially passed by the Senate.

The extension was a defeat for Bush, who had fought for a permanent renewal but ran into an outcry over revelations that he had authorized eavesdropping on Americans suspected of links to terrorism without a court order.

The House also gave final passage to a $453.3 billion defense-spending bill that includes $50 billion for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and sent the measure to Bush. Democrats had forced the Senate’s Republican majority to strip from the measure a provision opening up an Alaska wildlife refuge to oil drilling.

In addition, a nearly yearlong battle to cut spending was further delayed when Democrats forced the House put off a vote until next year on a nearly $40 billion spending-cut package Republicans had hoped would showcase a commitment to reducing deficits as they push for lower taxes.

Despite the last-minute Democratic gains, Republicans touted successes in upgrading roads and mass transit, expanding trade, revamping bankruptcy laws, enacting a comprehensive energy policy and confirming John Roberts to head the U.S. Supreme Court as the 17th chief justice.

Bush said he would sign the extension to the Patriot Act.

“It appears to me that the Congress understands we got to keep the Patriot Act in place, that we’re still under threat, there’s still an enemy that wants to harm us,” Bush said.

The act was passed after the September 11, 2001, attacks and key provisions were due to expire at the end of this month. It expanded federal authority to conduct secret searches, obtain private records, intercept telephone calls and take other actions in the effort to track down suspected terrorists.


House and Senate Republican leaders negotiated a compromise that would have permanently renewed the law, but that was blocked in the Senate by Democrats joined by a handful of Republicans.

After some last-minute wrangling between the House and Senate, lawmakers agreed to extend the act until February 3 and all sides declared victory.

“We kept Senate Democrats from killing the Patriot Act,” said White House spokesman Scott McClellan.

Democrats took a different view.

“We always said that we would accept a short-term extension to give negotiators time to get the final bill right,” Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada said. “We will use the extension to seek a Patriot Act that gives the government the tools it needs to fight the terrorists, while still protecting the rights of innocent Americans.”

Bush, who has been battling sinking approval ratings, has seen his clout in Congress diminished by recent scandals affecting top Republicans, as well as the eavesdropping revelation.

The spending-cut measure had been narrowly approved by the House and Senate, but Senate Democrats forced small changes that meant the House will have to take it up again next year.

The delay means the spending cuts, which affect some anti-poverty programs, might be considered as congressional Republicans try to push through tax cuts for investors and prepare for November 2006 congressional elections.

After adjourning for the year, Congress returns in January and the Senate plans confirmation hearings on Bush’s nomination of Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, has said he would also like to hold a hearing on the eavesdropping disclosure.

The Senate may also take up immigration legislation in February. The House approved a bill last week that focuses mostly on border controls and punishing businesses that hire illegal immigrants.

The Senate is likely to include some kind of temporary-worker program that many conservative House Republicans say would amount to giving amnesty to illegal immigrants.

(additional reporting by Thomas Ferraro and Richard Cowan)

© Reuters 2005.