WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republicans in the U.S. Congress said on Wednesday they were moving ahead with legislation that would speed up executions in the United States by limiting the ability of those sentenced to death to appeal to federal courts. Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter (news, bio, voting record) said he intended to bring the so-called "Streamlined Procedures Act of 2005" to a vote on Thursday in the Judiciary Committee which he chairs. A similar bill is also moving forward in the House of Representatives and could clear the committee stage soon. Republicans have also attached a key provision of the bill to legislation renewing the USA Patriot Act, which Congress is expected to act on later this month. Lawmakers clashed fiercely at a hearing on Wednesday of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Vermont Democrat Sen. Patrick Leahy (news, bio, voting record) called it a "crude partisan solution to an unproven and largely nonexistent problem." Arizona Republican Sen. Jon Kyl (news, bio, voting record), the bill's author, said he resented that characterization and insisted he had consulted widely with members of both parties. Leahy later withdrew the words "crude" and "partisan" and apologized. The bill would restrict the ability of defendants facing the death sentence to have their cases reviewed by federal courts in what are known as habeas corpus appeals. Kyl said such appeals were often tied up in the courts for 10 years or more, sometimes for 15 years or more. Opponents, including the American Bar Association and other legal groups, say the law would strip the ability of federal courts to review most claims in capital cases and would result in innocent people being put to death. Specter said he was trying to strike a middle ground, eliminating enormous delays in executions while preserving the legal rights of people sentenced to death. RIGHT TO DNA TEST He noted that the bill included a clause giving all those convicted of all criminal charges the right to DNA testing. Habeas corpus -- the phrase in Latin for "you have the body" -- has been a centerpiece of Anglo-American jurisprudence since it was first developed over 300 years ago in Britain. It gave defendants the right to have their imprisonment reviewed by a court. The number of people sentenced to death and put to death in the United States has been falling in recent years. Last year, 59 prisoners were executed, six fewer than in 2003, according to the Justice Department, which also reported this week that 125 people, including five women, were sentenced to death, the smallest number since 1973. The provision of the bill being attached to the Patriot Act concerns what happens when people sentenced to death argue they have been represented by incompetent attorneys. In the past, there have been several documented cases of defense attorneys falling asleep during capital cases or being drunk or simply of gross incompetence. The provision would transfer reviews of incompetence from a judge to the U.S. Attorney General. Former U.S. solicitor general Seth Waxman told the committee that would be a mistake because the Attorney General was not neutral. "That determination is one that should be made by an impartial adjudicator, not a prosecutor," he said. "The Attorney General is by definition a prosecutor."