TOPICS > Politics

Patriot Act Squabble

December 22, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT


MARGARET WARNER: The high stakes drama over the Patriot Act. We begin with some background from the week.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: It is inexcusable for the United States Senate to let this Patriot Act expire.

MARGARET WARNER: All week, President Bush warned of dire consequences if the Senate did not reauthorize major parts of the Patriot Act before they expired on Dec. 31.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: The senators obstructing the Patriot Act need to understand that the expiration of this vital law will endanger America and will leave us in a weaker position in the fight against brutal killers.

MARGARET WARNER: Faced with a Senate filibuster, the White House also declared the president would not support a temporary three-month extension of the current law. That compromise had been proposed Judiciary Committee Democrat Patrick Leahy, to give Congress more time to address the civil liberties concerns being raised by some members.

Last Friday, Majority Leader Bill Frist also insisted he wouldn’t go along with the temporary measure.

SEN. BILL FRIST: I oppose a short-term extension of the Patriot Act. The House opposes such an extension. The president will not sign such an extension.

MARGARET WARNER: And again, on Tuesday –

SEN. BILL FRIST: I am absolutely ruling out, and I’ve said it 100 times, and I’ll say it again.

MARGARET WARNER: But several Republicans had joined the Democrats in the filibuster, and in calling for the temporary extension to avert a crisis; New Hampshire’s John Sununu and Idaho’s Larry Craig among them.

SPOKESMAN: The point is we ought to do it. We ought to do it appropriately.

MARGARET WARNER: The Republican defections made it difficult for the White House.

REPORTER: There’s clearly movement to more Republicans standing in opposition to the president on this. Why not –

SCOTT McCLELLAN: No, I think — let’s make it clear. Almost all Republicans in the Senate support this.

MARGARET WARNER: But late last night, with senators eager to leave for the holidays stuck on the Senate floor, word came that a deal had been reached to temporarily extend the current Patriot Act for six months. The exhausted senators quickly approved the deal unanimously, not even bothering with a roll call vote.

SPOKESMAN: The ayes have it; the conference report is agreed to.

MARGARET WARNER: Majority Leader Frist later explained his change of position.

SEN. BILL FRIST: The president has made it very clear he did not want a short-term extension. So what I’ve tried to do is rise above the partisanship, work with the Democratic leader, and he and I mutually agreed on the six months.

MARGARET WARNER: Wisconsin Democrat Russ Feingold saw it differently.

SEN. RUSS FEINGOLD: They lost that game of chicken. In fact, the attorney general and the president said there was no way they would sign any temporary extension. It was their way or the highway. It had to be permanent despite the fact that the Patriot Act hadn’t been fixed but they did not prevail. The Senate prevailed.

MARGARET WARNER: But today, House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner refused to agree to the Senate’s compromise and on the House floor early this evening, pushed through a five-week extension of the Patriot Act, sending it back to the Senate for action tonight.

REP. JAMES SENSENBRENNER: They came pretty close to wrecking everybody’s Christmas; I didn’t want to put the entire Congress in the position of them wrecking everybody’s Independence Day.

MARGARET WARNER: Now to explain what happened, and what happens next, we’re joined by Norman Ornstein, veteran Congress watcher from the American Enterprise Institute.

Norm, make sense of this for us, first of all let’s start on the Senate side. Why initially would the White House and Republican leaders so adamant of not having a temporary extension only to give in last night?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: They believed that they had a deal; it was a deal that had been worked out by House Republicans and the White House that basically extended the law. They thought they had made concessions. The original Patriot Act had a seven-year sunset provision on most of its major portions — that it would have to be reviewed.

The White House originally wanted it to make it permanent. They agreed to basically extend it another four years in most of these major provisions. They thought that was enough. But a number of Senate Republicans and Democrats didn’t like some of these provisions, including, especially, things that would take away core protections from searches of business records or libraries and wanted a change.

The White House and the Senate Republican leadership thought that they could play a game of chicken with these people who objected and forced them in the end with the idea that if the Patriot Act which expires at the end of the year went under for any length of time, America would be vulnerable.

But in the end, for a variety of reasons, including most prominently the revelation about the wiretaps that emerged in the middle of this discussion, the worm turned, as it were, and they were forced to cave at the end although it wasn’t the end as it turns out.

MARGARET WARNER: Almost looked like the end until 5 o’clock this afternoon.

When was the deal actually cooked and who cooked it last night? And we saw these guys milling around on the Senate floor waiting, waiting.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: You know, for those of us who watch C-SPAN and the Senate –

MARGARET WARNER: I admit I even watched a little last night.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Well, it was particularly frustrating because they were in an endless quorum call where every five minutes they call a name and people were milling around. But it was just an excuse so that Sen. Frist and Sen. Feingold and a number of others could work out a deal.

The people who wanted to change the act that was going through asked for a three-month extension. Sen. Frist had said no temporary extension. To save face in a way, he agreed to a six-month extension until he found that the House decided to pull the rug out from under him.

MARGARET WARNER: Now did he have the White House on board for that six-month extension?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: The White House had to get on board in the end, basically, because they knew that they had no choice — that in the end, if the Patriot Act expired after the way this had transpired, it would look as if the president had turned down an opportunity to negotiate further.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, so everyone wakes up this morning and the wires were saying it looks like the House is going to go along with this, the six-month extension. Then what happens. I mean, did James Sensenbrenner single-handedly do this?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Yes, he did. Keep in mind, Margaret, that the House had passed this, the budget bill, appropriations bill and then left town, and basically said to the Senate take it or leave it. So the House is away.

Now the Senate makes the changes that they’ve made, send it back to the House for what is supposed to be a pro forma session and said take it or leave it and the House didn’t take it. And they gave the Senate back a present from Mr. Sensenbrenner in the form of an exploding cigar basically saying we don’t like your compromise. We’re going to give you something else, a one-month extension.

And now the Senate will be back in session at 8:00 this evening, something they did not want or hope would happen to figure out what to do with that.

MARGARET WARNER: But, I mean, was this just a power play between the House and the Senate, or was there a substantive reason why Sensenbrenner thought a shorter time period was better?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: You know, it’s — it’s games within games within games and end games within end games. And you have Democrats and Republicans at odds, House and Senate at odds. And frankly, Sen. Frist and Sen. Specter, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee who’s now going to have to deal with this at the same time he is dealing with the hearings on Judge Alito -


NORMAN ORNSTEIN: — is going to be furious about this.

But there was a point to what Mr. Sensenbrenner was doing, which is if you postpone this six months you may end up with an endgame in six months. Let’s force the action in a month and see whether we can work out some kind of a compromise. But we’ll have another brinksmanship process that will occur at the end of January, now it’s the 3rd of February.

MARGARET WARNER: When Sensenbrenner had his press conference late today he also said he had been talking to the White House. Now do you have any idea or have you heard anything about how the White House feels about this? Now they ended up with an even shorter short-term extension than they said they wanted initially.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Frankly, the White House was a spectator in this more than a participant. Mr. Sensenbrenner is a very stubborn person and when he was going to dig in on this, there was not much that they could do.

MARGARET WARNER: And technically explain why can one member do that? Is that because when the House is gone they need unanimous consent for their vote?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Yes, there are other interesting twists here. The House originally, after the Senate had acted late, last night basically said let’s just get this done in a pro forma session five or six numbers on the floor by unanimous consent.

The Democratic leader, Nancy Pelosi, who has many objections to the things that occurred said no. And now coming back Mr. Sensenbrenner said fine, we’re not going to let it go through. I’m not going to let it happen. I don’t care if the Patriot Act expires. I’m not going to let the Senate get away with this. So the force of will of one person can make a real difference here.

MARGARET WARNER: So in a word or in a couple sentences, is there any reason to think that they are going to be able to reach a compromise on the toughest sticking points if they have another month?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: You know, the bill that passed the Senate, that is the bill that the — that Senators Feingold and Sununu and the others who filibustered this want -

MARGARET WARNER: With these additional protections.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: — these additional protections passed the Senate unanimously. Then it went to the House where the House Republicans put their own bill together. They can probably find a compromise here but it’s going to take some give-and-take from the House Judiciary Committee chairman who doesn’t like to give and only likes to take.

MARGARET WARNER: And is pretty annoyed right now.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Is very annoyed.

MARGARET WARNER: Norm Ornstein, thanks so much.