By JESSE J. HOLLAND
WASHINGTON -- A deal preserving the expiring portions of the terror-fighting USA Patriot Act may be in the works, Senate Judiciary chairman Arlen Specter said Wednesday.
Specter said he held secret talks and chances of a deal "are brighter in the last half hour than they've been for six days."
A House-Senate compromise extending 16 expiring provisions of the Patriot Act has been stuck in the Senate for the past week because of a Democratic-led filibuster. Opponents of the legislation say they want more safeguards in the legislation than are currently being offered.
The legislation's supporters, including Specter, R-Pa., have argued that the measure is the best they could come up with in negotiations with the Republican-controlled House.
Specter said he is trying to broker a deal that would allow the Senate to pass the current legislation "on my commitment to take up issues that they are so worried about. We'd have hearings early next year and consider the amendments, no commitment as to passage, but give consideration to that so we don't have the Patriot Act lapse, since it's important to America."
Specter held out hope that a deal could be made quickly. "I think there's a fairly good chance at this moment," he said.
President Bush, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and Republicans congressional leaders have lobbied fiercely to get the Patriot Act compromise passed by the Senate. The House passed the compromise last week.
"This obstruction is inexcusable," Bush said at the White House. "The senators obstructing the Patriot Act need to understand that the expiration of this vital law will endanger America and will leave us in a weaker position in the fight against brutal killers."
The bill's opponents said Wednesday that they had enough signatures in the Senate to pass a three-month extension of the Patriot Act, which they said would be enough time to negotiate more protections on civil liberties.
Eight Republicans joined with 44 Democrats in the letter to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., asking him to bring up their bill to extend the Patriot Act for 90 days to allow for continued negotiations.
"Our goal is to mend it or extend it, not end it," said Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
But Frist has shown no interest in bringing up a short-term Patriot Act extension, saying he wants a vote on the House-Senate compromise. "I'm very hopeful that over the course of the day that bill can be addressed, that we do get up-or-down vote," he said.