Like John Howard, George W. Bush has a theoretical majority in both
houses of his legislature. Unlike ours, it’s been giving him a serious
amount of trouble.

First there was the embarrassing backdown earlier this month on the
McCain amendment to outlaw the use of inhumane interrogation practices.

Then there was the firestorm of criticism over the revelation that Bush
had authorised wiretaps on Americans without warrants, in apparently
clear breach of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. John Dean,
the famous Watergate conspirator and whistleblower, commented that “Mr Bush was the first president to actually admit to an impeachable offence.”

Now he has struck trouble with the renewal of the centrepiece of his
anti-terrorism legislation, the Patriot Act. Passed in the aftermath of
11 September 2001, the Act (an acronym for Providing Appropriate Tools
Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism) had a sunset date of 31
December this year. (Howard’s compliant parliament gave him sunset
clauses of ten years, or none at all.)

The House of Representatives approved indefinite renewal of almost all
the provisions of the Patriot Act, but Democrats in the Senate demanded
the addition of more safeguards for civil liberties. They offered a
three-month extension while these were debated, which the White House
refused. But it was unable to push the blanket renewal through the
Senate in the face of a Democrat filibuster; needing 60 votes to close off debate, it could only muster 52.

So yesterday Bush backed down, agreeing to a temporary extension, although for six months instead of three. Democrat Senator Russell Feingold said “They lost the game of chicken.” But in a further twist, Republicans in the House of Reps overnight threw out
the provision for a six-month extension and, “on a voice vote in a
nearly empty chamber”, sent to the Senate their own proposal for a
five-week extension, to expire on 3 February.

So not only can’t the White House get Congress to co-operate, even the
House and Senate Republicans can’t get their line straight. But it
looks as if the debate will continue into next year. And as Bush’s
expansive interpretation of his existing powers becomes clearer, so
will the determination of his opponents to call him to account.