WASHINGTON – Sixteen of the more controversial provisions of the Patriot Act would be extended by one month under the latest change to the bill out of the House of Representatives.
In a nearly empty chamber, the House agreed on a voice vote Thursday to an amended version of the sweeping anti-terrorism bill that would renew the existing law only through Feb. 3.
Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, forced the change to the bill under House rules.
"A six-month extension, in my opinion, would have simply allowed the Senate to duck the issue until the last week in June," Sensenbrenner said shortly after leaving the House chamber.
The extension is shorter than the six-month reauthorization passed late Wednesday by the Senate, but would prevent the crucial provisions from expiring Dec. 31 as set in the existing law. The White House had wanted a much longer extension or passage of the new bill for four more years.
Passage of a one-month extension would require lawmakers to debate the issue early in 2006 in order to address the dispute before the February expiration, and could mean Senate critics will get greater privacy protections in exchange for long-term legislation.
The Senate must also agree to the change for the bill to take effect. That could happen this evening as senators were alerted last night they might be called back on Thursday evening despite adjourning until Jan. 3. President Bush also has the authority to call Congress back into session to prevent the expiration of the existing law.
One Senator, though, was defiant over provisions that he said were unacceptable.
"No one should make the mistake of thinking that a shorter extension will make it possible to jam the unacceptable conference report through the Congress," said Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis., who was the only senator to vote against the original bill, and led the charge against reauthorization this time around. "That bill is dead and cannot be revived."
Late Wednesday evening, senators struck a deal that would fully reauthorize the Patriot Act in its current form for six months and give lawmakers the chance to revisit controversial portions of the act that have been subject to extensive opposition.
Soon after the deal was announced, the Senate passed the extension.
Before the House vote Thursday, White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan accused Senate Democrats of trying to score political points and appease special interests, including the American Civil Liberties Union, by blocking extension of the law. He said the temporary extension is a victory for the administration, even though it long said it would not approve anything but its permanent renewal.
"We kept Senate Democrats from killing the Patriot Act," McClellan said. "We're pleased that the existing Patriot Act is still in place."
"These vital tools will remain in place," he said, adding that the administration would continue to work to get the act reauthorized.
On his way to Camp David, Md., for the holiday weekend, Bush sidestepped the debate that developed overnight between Republicans in the House and Senate.
"It appears to me that Congress understands we've got to keep the Patriot Act in place, that we're still under threat," Bush said.
The agreement came after a full day of negotiation among Bush and Senate Republican leaders who support permanent renewal and Democrats and moderate GOPers who oppose the act in its negotiated form.
Republican Sens. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, Larry Craig of Idaho, John Sununu of New Hampshire and Lisa Murkowksi of Alaska helped block a final vote on a compromise bill offered by House and Senate negotiators. In the last days, four more Republican moderates agreed that they wanted to look at a few of the provisions that most irk civil liberties groups.
The House had already approved the final version negotiated by House and Senate conferees last week.
Opponents of the bill say they want the chance to take up the civil liberties issues that forced a filibuster on the bill last week.
Lawmakers say they want to adjust two or three provisions of the 16 main components in the act. They include restricting the circumstances under which the government can search the records, homes or businesses of people with suspected ties to terrorism, without getting a court's authorization.
Sununu told FOX News that he wants to see changes to the "gag orders" with regard to national security letters and on library and business records searches.
Craig aides said the senator wants to see stricter constraints on so-called "sneak-and-peek" searches.
Opponents of the provisions also say they want to give people suspected of plotting terrorist acts more access to the courts.
Republicans who had pushed for legislation that would renew the expiring provisions for four more years said the agreement only postpones the ongoing arguments over the Patriot Act for six months. "We'll be right back where we are right now," said a clearly frustrated Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, added, "Our intelligence and law enforcement officials should not be left wondering, yet again, whether the Congress will manage to agree to reauthorize the tools that protect our nation."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.