The House passed a one-month extension of the Patriot Act on Thursday and sent it to the Senate for final action as Congress scrambled to prevent expiration of anti-terror law enforcement provisions on Dec. 31.
Approval came on a voice vote in a nearly empty chamber, after Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, refused to agree to a six-month extension the Senate cleared several hours earlier.
House passage marked the latest step in a stalemate that first pitted Republicans against Democrats in the Senate, then turned into an intramural GOP dispute.
It was not clear when the Senate would act on the one-month bill, but approval was possible by evening.
Without action by Congress, several provisions enacted in the days following the 2001 terror attacks are due to expire. President Bush has repeatedly called on Congress not to let that happen.
Thenight marked a turnabout for GOP leaders, who had long insisted they would accept nothing less than a permanent renewal of the law. The House approved the measure earlier this month, but a Democratic-led filibuster blocked passage in the Senate, with critics arguing the bill would shortchange the civil liberties of innocent Americans.
Passage of a one-month extension would require lawmakers to debate the issue early in 2006, and is certain to require concessions to the Senate critics who are seeking greater privacy protections.
Mr. Bush carefully sidestepped the dispute 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," Mr. Bush said before boarding a helicopter for a trip to the presidential retreat at Camp David, Md.
After weeks of absorbing Republican criticism on the issue, Democrats seized on Sensenbrenner's rejection of a six-month bill.
"Congressman Sensenbrenner needs to do what's right for Americans and agree to let the bipartisan Senate bill pass promptly," said Jim Manley, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
Under House rules, Sensenbrenner has the power to block enactment of the six-month law. Officials who described his position did so on condition of anonymity, citing a need to keep the matter confidence.
That left the White House and GOP leaders with a dwindling set of options to prevent the expiration of the law.
Among them was passage of a short-term extension, possibly one month, a step that would require lawmakers to reconvene earlier than they anticipate in January.
Mr. Bush also has the authority to call Congress back into session to prevent the expiration of the existing law before Dec. 31. Several Republican officials said earlier in the week he had been prepared to do so if Congress adjourned without acting on the renewal.
Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., who had led the Democratic-led filibuster against permanently renewing most of the law's expiring provisions, said the six-month extension "will allow more time to finally agree on a bill that protects our rights and freedoms while preserving important tools for fighting terrorism."
Most of the Patriot Act, which expanded the government's surveillance and prosecutorial powers against suspected terrorists, their associates and financiers, was made permanent when Congress overwhelmingly passed it after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington.
Making permanent the rest of the Patriot Act powers, like the roving wiretaps which allow investigators to listen in on any telephone and tap any computer they think a target might use, has been a priority of the administration and Republican lawmakers.
Some civil liberties safeguards had been inserted into legislation for renewing that law but Senate Democrats and a small group of GOP senators blocked it anyway, arguing that more safeguards were needed.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said he had no choice but to accept a six-month extension in the face of a successful filibuster and the Patriot Act's Dec. 31 expiration date. "I'm not going to let the Patriot Act die," Frist said.
Mr. Bush indicated that he would sign the extension. "The work of Congress on the Patriot Act is not finished," Mr. Bush said. "The act will expire next summer, but the terrorist threat to America will not expire on that schedule. I look forward to continuing to work with Congress to reauthorize the Patriot Act."
Frist said he had not consulted with House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., yet on the six-month extension. Senior Republicans there have opposed any temporary extension of the current law, insisting that most of the expiring provisions should be renewed permanently, but it would be difficult for the House to reject a plan agreed to by the Senate and the president.
The six-month "extension ensures that the tools provided to law enforcement in terrorist investigations in the Patriot Act remain in effect while Congress works out the few differences that remain," said Sen. John Sununu, R-N.H., one of a small group of Republicans who crossed party lines to block the Patriot Act legislation.
Republicans who had pushed for legislation that would make most of the expiring provisions permanent 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.