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22 Dec 2005 08:47
United States President George Bush was forced late on Wednesday to settle for a face-saving compromise on a key counterterrorism law that fell far short of his goal to see it expended indefinitely.
The reluctant nod came from the White House after Republican and Democratic senators agreed to extend the main provisions of the USA Patriot Act for only six months.
Bush wanted no time limits attached to the measure, but had to take what his Republican allies in Congress were able to extract from an unyielding coalition of Democrats and several Republicans.
“The work of Congress on the Patriot Act is not finished,” Bush said in a brief statement. “I look forward to continuing to work with Congress to re-authorise the Patriot Act.”
As part of the accord, which was latter adopted by voice vote, opponents of the Act in its current form agreed to end their filibuster—extending a debate to prevent a vote—and the Republican majority dropped its opposition to a temporary solution.
“This is a common-sense solution that gives the Senate more time to craft a consensus Bill that will promote our security while preserving our freedom,” Patrick Leahy, the top Democrat on the Senate judiciary committee, said in a statement.
Democratic Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid said the compromise gives Congress the necessary time to once again examine the Act and amend it so that “it allows us to fight the terrorists and protect the Constitution”.
Republican majority leader Bill Frist, who a few days ago brushed off any thought of temporary solutions, insisted that the deal shows broad bipartisan support for the idea that the Patriot Act should never be allowed to expire.
Enacted barely six weeks after the September 11 2001 attacks, the Act is seen by the Bush administration as a key legal tool in the war on terror.
It gives the federal government greater search and surveillance powers by streamlining procedures and eliminating red tape.
Under its provisions, investigators can obtain warrants to intercept telephone conversations conducted by a terrorism suspect or monitor e-mail traffic from any computer.
The law also makes it possible for the government to obtain banking, medical or library records.
But mindful of concerns the act could make Americans more vulnerable to government intrusion, lawmakers had equipped 16 of its key provisions with the so-called “sunset” feature, making sure that, unless renewed, they will automatically expire at the end of this year.
Two of these provisions—dealing with the government’s access to library records and so-called roving wire taps, which allow the government to monitor all the telephones a person has access to—have drawn particularly strong criticism as excessively invasive and harmful to civil liberties.
The future of the Act was further called into question following revelations last week that Bush had repeatedly authorised electronic wiretaps inside the US without a requisite court order, a decision that some said was in violation of US law.
The filibuster of the Act’s extension was led by a bipartisan group of 52 senators that included eight Republicans.
The scope of the opposition made it clear the White House and its allies would not be able to muster the 60 votes necessary in the 100-seat Senate to end the obstructionist tactic.
Bush stepped up political pressure on his critics earlier on Wednesday by publicly calling the obstruction “inexcusable”.
But a stalemate would have meant the expiration of most of the Patriot Act at the stroke of midnight on December 31, an option the president himself had called unacceptable.
The House of Representatives was expected to take up the compromise on Thursday.—Sapa-AFP
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