Washington — The House and Senate are back in session this week, and on one issue — the debate over renewing disputed sections of the Patriot Act — it's as if they never left town for a long holiday recess.
The five-week renewal of the 16 expiring sections, which passed just as Congress left Washington in late December, ends Friday, but it seems the most likely action this week is passage of another short-term extension.
House-Senate negotiations over resolving the Senate's insistence on greater civil liberty protections in a few sections apparently have not produced an agreement.
The debate over the renewal of the Patriot Act provisions has become embroiled in the disclosure of President Bush's approval for the National Security Agency to eavesdrop without a warrant on phone calls and e-mails in this country.
Although the investigative tools in the Patriot Act provisions are not directly related to that secret spying, the disclosure led some senators from both parties to insist on increased civil liberties protections in the handful of provisions that are in dispute.
"It sounds like we might need another short-term extension,'' Jeff Lungren, spokesman for House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., said Monday.
Sensenbrenner, the lead House negotiator in trying to work out an accord on differing House and Senate versions of the renewal, balked at the Senate's plan for a six-month Patriot Act extension near the end of December and insisted on the five-week renewal. He believes "a long-term extension just allows them (the Senate) to kick the issue down the road,'' Lungren said.
That view may prevail again, probably Wednesday when the House plans to vote on the issue. "It's kind of like where we were five weeks ago,'' said Lungren.
Further complicating the Patriot Act renewal is the Senate fight over the confirmation of Judge Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court.
Critics say Alito, expected to be confirmed today, takes an expansive view of presidential powers. They fear that once on the bench Alito would uphold Bush's use of the warrantless eavesdropping and other expanded authority in the open-ended war on terrorism.
The furor over domestic spying is expected to intensify next week, when the Senate Judiciary Committee opens hearings into the Bush administration's assertion that it has legal authority for the program.
The lead witness will be Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who as White House counsel in 2001 advised Bush he could order the eavesdropping despite the requirements of the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act for warrants for such snooping.
Most of the Patriot Act enacted in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks is permanent. But 16 key provisions were so controversial even then that Congress required they expire in four years unless renewed.
The wrangling in the latest version has narrowed to disagreement over how to curb the FBI's access to Americans' library, bookstore, business or Internet records for terrorist investigations; what rights the targets of so-called national security letters have in appealing such orders for information; and how long after agents conduct secret searches must they notify their target.
Bush has left no doubt he believes the act must be renewed. [Mindfully.org note: A functioning mind is required in order to have doubt]
"The Patriot Act may be set to expire, but the threats to the United States haven't expired,'' he said at Kansas State University last week.
His critics say the president has overstated his case by making it seem that the entire act is set to expire and that they want to kill the entire legislation.
"Congress extended this Patriot Act to February the 3rd. That's not good enough for the American people, it seems like to me,'' Bush said. "When they get back there, they need to make sure they extend all aspects of the Patriot Act to protect the American people.''
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, responded to Bush last Thursday in her "pre-buttal'' to his State of the Union speech tonight.
"Ninety percent of the Patriot Act is law. So when the president says, 'I need the Patriot Act to do my job,' — 90 percent of it is law. The discussion now is about the most controversial 10 percent of it. And these concerns are shared by Democrats and Republicans,'' Pelosi said.
Not wanting to be painted as obstructionists in the terrorism fight, the Democrats have been only too happy to let the handful of Senate Republicans take the lead in fighting for more changes to the act.
One of those Senate Republicans, Sen. John Sununu of New Hampshire, said he sees hope for an accord with the House.
But even with another short-term extension, the House-Senate deadlock doesn't look like it will break soon, said Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond.
"It seems the two sides are dug in, and (next) Monday is the Senate hearing. There are a lot of uncertainties on these issues involving the warrantless (National Security Agency) program that play back on the Patriot Act,'' he said.
"Sensenbrenner has been tough and stuck to his guns on past occasions. Maybe buying time will help,'' Tobias added.
source: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/c/a/2006/01/31/MNGT5GVUIU1.DTL&type=printable 16feb2006