Patriot games, Part 2: Pettiness and personal pique

James Sensenbrenner goes one more round and leaves Bill Frist and George W. Bush looking even weaker in the process.

Published December 23, 2005 2:20PM (EST)

What is it about the Patriot Act that brings out the pettiness in people? After Bill Frist and the Bush administration finally relented Wednesday and agreed to a common-sense, six-month extension to the Patriot Act, Rep. James Sensenbrenner decided Thursday that it was his turn to be unreasonable.

The Republican chairman of the House Judiciary Committee said that he wouldn't stand for any extension of the Patriot Act at all -- that senators, who had pretty much left Washington for the holidays already, would have to vote to support the existing version of the renewal legislation or watch provisions of the Patriot Act expire on Dec. 31.

According to the New York Times, the White House struck back at Sensenbrenner by suggesting that the president would call a special session of the House next week to consider the question if Sensenbrenner didn't cave in to political reality. Apparently unwilling to have 434 other representatives peeved at him for ruining their holidays, Sensenbrenner gave in, sort of, agreeing to a five-week extension of the expiring Patriot Act provisions.

With the House not scheduled to return to work until Jan. 31 -- a late started designed to give Tom DeLay the most time possible to resolve his legal problems before new leadership elections can occur -- Sensenbrenner's short extension doesn't give anyone much time to deal with the work needed on a Patriot Act compromise. And when that time does come, it will coincide with discussions in Congress about the need for an investigation into Bush's warrantless spying program -- not exactly an environment that encourages the turning of one's back on civil liberties questions.

And by forcing Bush and Frist to accept a five-week extension rather than the six-month extension they had to swallow earlier in the week, Sensenbrenner leaves the two Republicans looking even weaker than they already did. When Bush gave his blessings to a six-month extension after Scott McClellan insisted that he wouldn't approve "any short-term extension," McClellan had to argue that six months wasn't really "short term." What will he say about five weeks?

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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