MELISSA BLOCK, host:
The issue of torture has been resolved, but lawmakers still face a mountain of unfinished business, and it looks as if they'll leave town for the holidays with major issues still unresolved. NPR's David Welna joins us from the Capitol.
And, David, what's left? What does Congress still have to do before it finishes for the holidays?
DAVID WELNA reporting:
Well, Melissa, for starters there's that huge Pentagon spending bill that McCain's torture ban is a part of. And with the nation at war, GOP leaders seem certain that lawmakers would be unwilling to vote against that bill. So they've saved it as a kind of a Christmas tree on which to hang some other big ornaments and the biggest one--and it's one that could possibly topple that figurative tree right over--is a rider authorizing oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, or ANWR. And that's hugely controversial. It has been for years, and Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid said this afternoon that it's an attempt to hold US troops hostage to sneaking in what he called a special interest rider for gas and oil companies. And he said Democrats could end up trying to stop the defense bill with a filibuster.
BLOCK: Now, David, the House yesterday passed an extension of the USA Patriot Act. Now it needs the Senate's approval, but it's got some trouble there.
WELNA: Yes, this is another highly controversial piece of legislation even though when it was originally passed right after the 9/11 attacks in the name of fighting terrorism, only one senator voted against it at that time. But many others have since had second thoughts, and you now have a group of bipartisan group of civil libertarians in the Senate threatening to filibuster the Patriot Act renewal. And, significantly, they were joined today by California Democrat Dianne Feinstein, who was an original co-sponsor of the Patriot Act. And tomorrow there's going to be a key test vote that should show whether those critics have the votes they need to sustain a filibuster, and the White House seems very concerned about this. President Bush this afternoon used some very pointed language demanding that this extension to the Patriot Act get approved by Congress. And he said that if that doesn't happen the Patriot Act will expire. That's not really the case, though. Most of its provisions are permanent and only 16 of them would actually expire at the end of the year if they aren't renewed.
BLOCK: Well, what are some of the specific provisions in the Patriot Act that some of these senators are so concerned about?
WELNA: Well, their concerns have to do mainly with only a couple of the provisions. One has to do with law enforcement officials obtaining transaction records from libraries and businesses, and another has to do with the so-called national security letters. Those who get these requests for personal or business documents are forbidden from disclosing such letters. And the main complaint is that even though there are now some new legal protections available in the revised Patriot Act bill, opponents say they still fall far short of what they really should be. So they want a three-month extension to further work out these issues, but GOP leaders say they have no intention of voting on such an extension. So there is the possibility that those 16 provisions that sunset at the end of the month would lapse entirely. But if that happens, those mainly Republicans who oppose an extension run the political risk of being accused of weakening national security by letting those provisions run out.
BLOCK: Now Congress was also supposed to wrap up work on two big budget bills. One was going to reduce spending, the other was going to cut taxes. Where does that stand?
WELNA: Well, they're mired in deep differences between the House and Senate versions of both bills. But Republican leaders also have to sort out the political risk of pushing these bills because the spending cuts were done in the name of reducing the deficit and they do so, in part, by carving money out of programs for the poor. And yet the tax cut bills, which largely benefit the wealthy, are bigger than the spending cuts. And so there really is no deficit reduction, anyway. I don't think we're going to see either bill finish this year.
BLOCK: So when do you figure lawmakers will be heading home, David?
WELNA: Well, given how much work remains unfinished, I expect they'll still be in town early next week. We have some very heavy gamesmanship or perhaps brinksmanship going on here. GOP leaders are using lawmakers' desire to leave town to let the pressure build on those who are blocking legislation, and I guess we'll soon see if that works or not.
BLOCK: OK, NPR's David Welna at the Capitol. David, thanks very much.
WELNA: You're welcome, Melissa.
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