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Senate Races to Finish Work Before Holidays


From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

Members of the US House are heading home for the holidays after an all-night session. But the Senate stayed behind as it tries to wrap up some controversial bills. Oil drilling in Alaska, the USA Patriot Act and cuts in social spending all await action. Senators also reacted to President Bush's statements at his White House news conference this morning. NPR's David Welna reports from the Capitol.

DAVID WELNA reporting:

After acknowledging over the weekend he's ordered domestic eavesdropping with no court reviews since 2002, President Bush was asked today whether Americans can expect a permanent expansion of, quote, "the unchecked power of the executive."

President GEORGE W. BUSH: There is oversight. We're talking to Congress all the time. And on this program, to suggest there's unchecked power is not listening to what I'm telling you. I'm telling you we have briefed the United States Congress on this program a dozen times.

WELNA: But later, at a news conference outside the Senate chamber, Michigan Democrat Carl Levin scoffed at the notion that top-secret briefings by administration officials amount to congressional oversight.

Senator CARL LEVIN (Democrat, Michigan): That's not a check on the executive branch, notifying some members of Congress, if he did, that he's taken the law into his own hands.

WELNA: And Wisconsin Democrat Russ Feingold dismissed the president's argument that the post-9/11 congressional resolution authorizing the use of force in Afghanistan is legal authority for the domestic spying.

Senator RUSSELL FEINGOLD (Democrat, Wisconsin): If he feels there has to be a change in that procedure, he should come to us and we should debate it. And I would add he should cease doing anything else he might be doing that--for which there's not legal authority that we don't know about. He is the president, not a king.

WELNA: On another front, President Bush today called it inexcusable that most Senate Democrats, joined by four Republicans, blocked a renewal of the Patriot Act on Friday.

Pres. BUSH: And now the United States Senate is going to let this bill expire--not the Senate; a minority of senators. And I want senators from New York or Los Angeles or Las Vegas to go home and explain why these cities are safer.

WELNA: But the senator from Las Vegas, Democratic Leader Harry Reid, pointed out that President Bush opposes the 90-day extension of the current Patriot Act proposed by a bipartisan Senate coalition.

Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada; Minority Leader): Maybe he thinks this gives him a political advantage. But the responsibility of this bill going up or down is his and no one else's. It's time for the president to put politics aside, national security first. It would be irresponsible and a dereliction of duty for the administration to allow these provisions to expire.

WELNA: Arizona Republican Jon Kyl accused Reid and others of refusing to accept a compromise reached with House conservatives on the Patriot Act.

Senator JON KYL (Republican, Arizona): What the other side is basically arguing is, `Unless we get our way 100 percent, then we're not going to agree to this.'

WELNA: Meanwhile, the last-minute attachment of a provision allowing oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to the big defense spending bill caused outrage on the Senate floor. Alaska Republican Ted Stevens defended the move.

Senator TED STEVENS (Republican, Alaska): This is an amendment to pursue domestic production of oil, without which we will be in great difficulty--the largest consumer of oil in the United States is the Department of Defense. Now if they disagree with us on that position, the opposition, then let's see whether the Senate believes that this is a matter--that it's in the interest of national security.

WELNA: Connecticut Democrat Joseph Lieberman, who's among those strongly opposed to the ANWR amendment, said that according to GOP leaders...

Senator JOSEPH LIEBERMAN (Democrat, Connecticut): ...we will be intimidated because they've had the gall to put the drilling of ANWR, totally unrelated, onto the defense appropriations bill, to just bow our heads and walk away. We're not going to do that. This is too outrageous and too important.

WELNA: A showdown vote on the measure is expected on Wednesday. David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.