Washington The Republican-controlled House approved a pair of year-end conservative priorities Wednesday, voting to extend the anti-terrorism Patriot Act and to cut spending across a wide swath of social programs.
Both bills have White House support, but they also face Democratic-led opposition in the Senate. Their fates are uncertain in the final, contentious days of the congressional year.
"We need to stay tough on terrorism. This bill ensures that our law enforcement keep the tools they already have in place to root out and prosecute terrorists," House Speaker Dennis Hastert said as lawmakers voted 251-174 to renew expiring provisions of the Patriot Act. The law initially was passed after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Despite criticism that the bill shortchanged civil liberties, the vote was relatively bipartisan. The 44 Democratic supporters included two members of the leadership.
The vote on the spending bill was far closer and more partisan, 215-213. Maryland Rep. Steny Hoyer, the second-ranking Democrat, scathingly criticized the Republican-crafted funding measure. "Last week, the House majority passed more than $94 billion in additional tax cuts, the benefits of which mostly go to the wealthiest taxpayers," he said.
"And this week, with this bill, we are slashing discretionary spending for education, health care programs, worker training and assistance to the most vulnerable by $1.6 billion."
As both bills advanced, Hastert, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and their leadership teams worked with the White House to salvage other priorities as well.
Legislation to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling took on outsized significance, with officials saying its passage could accomplish one and possibly two long-sought Republican goals.
The legislation itself would hand the president a major victory on energy policy.
At the same time, in the year-end congressional calculus readily understood only to lawmakers and their aides, approval of the oil provision could quickly lead to passage of a bill to attack deficits by slowing the growth of federal benefit programs for the first time in a decade.
"We're looking for ways to do that," said Rep. Roy Blunt, the acting House majority leader. House leaders reluctantly jettisoned the oil drilling provision this fall in their drive to salvage the larger deficit-cutting measure. In recent days, GOP officials have considered several options to push the ANWR legislation through Congress. One possibility, which Hastert and Frist discussed Tuesday night, would attach the ANWR legislation to a must-pass defense bill.
Any such strategy would require 60 votes in the Senate, though, and it is not clear it would succeed. But Frist, too, emphasized his eagerness to send the measure to Bush's desk, issuing a statement that said he is trying to "find the best way to thread the ANWR needle to help our country when it comes to energy independence."