Patriot Act Remains in Senate Limbo
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
A Republican-run Senate that's increasingly been at odds with President Bush is in a high-stakes endgame. As the holidays approach, Republican leaders are trying to shove through some of the year's most controversial legislation. They're hoping lawmakers urged to get out of town will melt resistance to everything from oil drilling in Alaska to renewing the Patriot Act. More from NPR's David Welna.
DAVID WELNA reporting:
Pressure on the Senate to act came directly from the White House yesterday. At a news conference, President Bush scolded lawmakers on both sides of the aisle who last Friday blocked a renewal of the Patriot Act.
President GEORGE W. BUSH: Most of the senators now filibustering the Patriot Act actually voted for it in 2001. These senators need to explain why they thought the Patriot Act was a vital tool after the September the 11th attacks but now think it's no longer necessary.
WELNA: The president's former challenger, Massachusetts Democrat John Kerry, replied that he and other senators who voted for the Patriot Act but blocked its renewal still think it's necessary.
Senator JOHN KERRY (Democrat, Massachusetts): What we're fighting for here is not whether or not to have a Patriot Act. What we're fighting over is whether or not to have a Patriot Act that keeps faith with the Constitution that we all swore to uphold and with our interpretation of the legitimate limits of intrusion on the rights of Americans. That's what we're fighting for.
WELNA: And the only senator who voted against the original Patriot Act, Wisconsin Democrat Russ Feingold, said it's the president who's letting the Patriot Act expire by opposing a three-month extension of the current act.
Senator RUSS FEINGOLD (Democrat, Wisconsin): It's the president who wants to play chicken here. He wants to have the risks taken that this would expire. All he has to do is be just a little reasonable, let the will of the Senate unanimously and an overwhelming number of House members be--that a couple of provisions be fixed and the law will be extended permanently other than certain sunset provisions. I think it's clear that the president is the one who is playing politics with this.
WELNA: But Arizona Republican Jon Kyl said no matter how long an extension, the House would never agree to the Senate insisting on further changes in the Patriot Act.
Senator JON KYL (Republican, Arizona): It's not that one chamber gets its way and the other chamber has to concede to everything. What's been clear from the House of Representatives is that three months, six months, a year isn't going to change anything. They have come to the conclusion that they've already conceded more than they should have.
WELNA: Another matter roiling the Senate is the president's admission he ordered domestic spying against suspected terrorists without seeking warrants from a secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court. Rhode Island Democrat Jack Reed rejected the president's claim that urgent security needs trumped warrants.
Senator JACK REED (Democrat, Rhode Island): There is no situation where time is of such an essence, they can't use the FISA proceedings. And so the president's justification, I think, is without merit.
WELNA: The president's defenders kept a lower profile. Texas Republican John Cornyn told reporters that civil liberties don't matter if you're dead from a terrorist attack. Meanwhile, senators are struggling over a gigantic must-pass Defense spending bill. Alaska Republican Ted Stevens at the last minute added a provision to it, allowing oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Senator TED STEVENS (Republican, Alaska): We've had this process year after year, and I know of other amendments that have gone into bills like this at the last minute where people tried to get passed something that didn't pass before. And because of the circumstances, they passed.
WELNA: Washington Democrat Maria Cantwell disputed Stevens' assertion that pumping oil out of ANWR is in the interests of national security.
Senator MARIA CANTWELL (Democrat, Washington): This is nothing more than a sweetheart deal for Alaska and the oil companies that stand to make $100 billion in profits this year. That's why I am prepared to use every procedural option available to me as a senator to prevent this language from moving forward on the Defense bill.
WELNA: Democrats and some Republicans may try to block the ANWR provision tomorrow. David Welna, NPR News.
MONTAGNE: And this morning it has been announced that Vice President Cheney is cutting short his trip to the Middle East and Asia to return to Washington. A White House official said he will be on hand for what could be a close vote in the Senate.