Divided Congress Holds Saturday Session

Members of Congress, working down to the wire on several issues ahead of a holiday break, hold a rare Saturday session on Capitol Hill.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

Both chambers of Congress are meeting in an unusual Saturday session. NPR's David Welna is up on the Hill as well. He joins me now.

Hello, David.

DAVID WELNA reporting:

Hi, Debbie.

ELLIOTT: Why is Congress working today?

WELNA: Well, it's mainly because the stopgap funding measure that's kept the Pentagon operating since October 1st, as well as all the federal labor, health and education programs, expires today. And lawmakers had hoped to finish the overdue annual spending bills for those programs by now, but they haven't managed to yet and none of them wants to see the Pentagon have to shut down in the middle of a war. So they're passing yet another stopgap funding bill.

ELLIOTT: What was the reaction to the president's radio address today?

WELNA: Well, it was more of the dismay that many lawmakers first expressed yesterday on learning that the White House had ordered domestic spying without court orders over the past three years. A couple of prominent Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee were especially critical of the president today. Wisconsin's Russ Feingold reminded Mr. Bush that he's President George Bush, not King George Bush. He also asserted that the president has violated both the Constitution and laws passed by Congress. And Massachusetts' Edward Kennedy said the president today admitted to spying on fellow citizens without judicial approval. And as Don Gonyea just mentioned, the Republican chairman of that Judiciary Committee, Arlen Specter, plans to hold hearings on what the National Security Agency's been up to. And he says he plans to call in Attorney General Gonzales as well as the FBI.

You know, I think a lot of members of Congress feel the president has, in fact, overstepped his constitutional authority as commander in chief. And I think it's clear that many lawmakers no longer seem so willing to give Mr. Bush the benefit of the doubt on national security and civil liberties issues that they had before.

ELLIOTT: Now the president is demanding that Congress extend provisions of the Patriot Act that will expire at the end of the month. Is that likely to happen?

WELNA: Well, it was filibustered yesterday and it's not very likely that there is going to be this extension by the end of the year. I think the big question now is whether both Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and President Bush will drop their resistance to a three-month extension of the current Patriot Act that's being proposed by those who say the revision needs more civil liberty safeguards refinements. If there is not such an extension, 16 provisions of that act will expire at the end of the month, and that's likely to create a lot of political finger pointing and blame assigning. But it won't be so easy for GOP leaders to say it's all the fault of Democrats if the provisions lapse, because four Republicans also voted to sustain a filibuster of the Patriot Act renewal yesterday.

ELLIOTT: There's another very big piece of legislation stalled in Congress. Quickly, can you tell us where things stand with funding for the Defense Department?

WELNA: Well, this defense spending bill is normally the first one that Congress finishes each year, since it's so big and it's seen as so important. But this year, GOP leaders saved it till the very end, and that's because it's considered must-pass legislation. So they're calculating that lawmakers won't vote against it even if they tack on a controversial spending bill for health, labor and education programs as well as another bill authorizing oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. That's hugely controversial, so expect to see a real showdown when this all comes to a vote, probably early next week, and possibly even a filibuster.

ELLIOTT: Thanks. NPR's David Welna at the Capitol.

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