WASHINGTON — The U.S. Senate on Friday rejected attempts to reauthorize several provisions of the nation’s top anti-terror law as infringing too much on Americans’ privacy, dealing a major defeat to President Bush and Republican leaders.
In a crucial vote early Friday, the bill’s Senate supporters were not able to get the 60 votes needed to overcome a threatened filibuster by Sens. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., and Larry Craig, R-Idaho, and their allies. The final vote was 52-47.
Bush, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and GOP congressional leaders had lobbied fiercely to make most of the 16 expiring Patriot Act provisions permanent, and add new safeguards and expiration dates to the two most controversial parts: roving wiretaps and secret warrants for books, records and other items from businesses, hospitals and organizations such as libraries.
Feingold, Craig and other critics said that wasn’t enough, and have called for the law to be extended in its present form so they can continue to try and add more civil liberties safeguards. But Bush, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and House Speaker Dennis Hastert have said they won’t accept a short-term extension of the law.
If a compromise is not reached, the 16 Patriot Act provisions expire on Dec. 31. Investigators will still be able to use those powers to complete any investigation that began before the expiration date, according to a provision in the original law.
“Our nation cannot afford to let these important counterterrorism tools lapse,” Gonzales said on Friday.
Frist changed his vote at the last moment after seeing the critics would win. He decided to vote with the prevailing side so he could call for a new vote at any time. He immediately objected to an offer of a short term extension from Democrats, saying the House won’t approve it and the president won’t sign it.
“We have more to fear from terrorism than we do from this Patriot Act,” Frist warned.
‘Vital tools’ in the war on terror
If the Patriot Act provisions expire, Republicans say they will place the blame on Democrats in next year’s midterm elections. “In the war on terror, we cannot afford to be without these vital tools for a single moment,” White House press secretary Scott McClellan said. “The time for Democrats to stop standing in the way has come.”
But the Patriot Act’s critics got a boost Friday from a New York Times report saying Bush authorized the National Security Agency to monitor the international phone calls and international e-mails of hundreds — perhaps thousands — of people inside the United States. Previously, the NSA typically limited its domestic surveillance to foreign embassies and missions and obtained court orders for such investigations.
“I don’t want to hear again from the attorney general or anyone on this floor that this government has shown it can be trusted to use the power we give it with restraint and care,” said Feingold, the only senator to vote against the Patriot Act in 2001.
“It is time to have some checks and balances in this country,” shouted Sen. Patrick Leahy, ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee. “We are more American for doing that.”
Most of the Patriot Act — which expanded the government’s surveillance and prosecutorial powers against suspected terrorists, their associates and financiers — was made permanent when Congress overwhelmingly passed it after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington. Making the rest of it permanent was a priority for both the Bush administration and Republican leaders on Capitol Hill before Congress adjourns for the year.
Compromise reached earlier
The House on Wednesday passed a House-Senate compromise bill to renew the Act that supporters say added significant safeguards to the law. These supporters predict doom and gloom if the Patriot Act’s critics win and the provisions expire.
“This is a defining moment. There are no more compromises to be made, no more extensions of time. The bill is what it is,” said Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz.
“Those that would give up essential liberties in pursuit (of) ... a little temporary security deserve neither liberty nor security,” said Sen. John Sununu, R-N.H. They suggested a short extension so negotiations could continue, but the Senate scrapped a Democratic-led effort to renew the USA Patriot Act for just three months before the vote began.
“Today, fair-minded senators stood firm in their commitment to the Constitution and rejected the White House’s call to pass a faulty law,” said Caroline Fredrickson, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington legislative office. “This was a victory for the privacy and liberty of all Americans.”
NBC News contributed to this report.