The House on Wednesday agreed to extend the USA Patriot Act for a month while conservative Republicans and the White House work out changes intended to protect people from government intrusion.
The GOP-controlled House used a voice vote to keep the law in effect until March 10 so negotiators have more time to come up with a deal. The Senate was expected to follow before the law expires on Friday.
Just before leaving for Christmas, Congress extended the law until Feb. 3. Senate Democrats and four libertarian-leaning Republicans had blocked a final vote on a measure negotiated by the White House that would have made permanent most expiring provisions. The Republicans were concerned about excessive police powers.
"It is imperative that we not play political games with the tools that our law enforcement needs to prevent another terrorist attack," said the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis.
House Democrats said they did not want the Patriot Act to expire but are pressing for civil rights protections before renewing it permanently. The extension "will give members a chance to work together," said Rep. Robert Scott, D-Va.
Added Rep. Jane Harman, top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee: "We must extend it, mend it, but not end it. "
It would be the second time Congress has extended the law. Originally passed five weeks after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the Patriot Act was due to expire Dec. 31.
President Bush in his State of the Union speech Tuesday called on Congress to renew the expiring 16 provisions. "The enemy has not lost the desire or capability to attack us. Fortunately, this nation has superb professionals in law enforcement, intelligence, the military and homeland security," Bush said.
The law makes it easier for federal agents to gather and share information in terrorism investigations, install wiretaps and conduct secret searches of households and businesses. At issue are 16 provisions that Congress wanted reviewed and renewed by the end of last year.
Objections to the compromise last fall centered on the degree to which people and institutions that receive National Security Letters -- secret requests for phone, business and Internet records -- can appeal them in court.
Sens. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, and John Sununu, R-N.H., say the law makes it nearly impossible to challenge such letters and their secretive demands for information. Craig told reporters this week that the White House had agreed to some changes that would address his concerns, but declined to describe the talks further.