Video: House vote delayed on Patriot Act

updated 3/1/2006 4:10:32 PM ET 2006-03-01T21:10:32

The Senate on Wednesday swatted aside a prolonged filibuster against the renewal of the USA Patriot Act and agreed to add new curbs on the government’s power to pry into private records under President Bush’s antiterror law.

Barring any last-minute problems in the House, the Senate action virtually assures that Congress will renew the act before it expires March 10. The law’s opponents conceded defeat.

“The die has now been cast,” acknowledged the law’s chief opponent, Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis., after the Senate voted 84-15 to end his filibuster. “Obviously at this point, final passage of the reauthorization bill is now assured.”

Earlier in the day, the Senate voted 95-4 to add new privacy protections for people who are targets of government terrorism investigations.

Feingold and a few other lawmakers complained that the restrictions on government power would be virtually meaningless in practice. Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., refused to allow more tinkering, pointing out that renewal of the 2001 law is already months overdue.

Feingold ‘disappointed’
In the face of overwhelming support for the package, its opponents conceded defeat.

“I am disappointed in this result,” added Feingold, a possible Democratic presidential candidate. “But I believe this fight has been worth making.”

Final Senate passage of the renewal was expected Friday, when senators were expected to approve the second half of the package, a House-Senate compromise to renew 16 provisions in the law.

Together, the votes Wednesday were significant steps forward for the stalled centerpiece of Bush’s war on terrorism. The two-bill package appeared headed for passage in both houses, and Bush’s desk, before the expiration.

The new curbs restrict somewhat the government’s ability to gain access to records in terrorism investigations by allowing court challenges to some demands.

That’s not enough for Feingold and Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., who were invoking several procedural maneuvers to slow down the legislation’s progress. They and two others, Sens. Jim Jeffords, I-Vt., and Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, voted ’no’ on the new curbs. Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, did not vote.

“No one has the right to turn this body into a rubber stamp,” said Feingold, the leading opponent of the law in Congress. “The White House played hardball and the decision was made by some to capitulate.”

The procedural wrangling in the Senate prompted House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., to pull the measure off his chamber’s schedule for the day. The House was not expected to vote on the matter until next week.

Expiration date extended twice
Unable to reach accord for months, Congress has twice extended the expiration date. The 2001 anti-terrorism law was originally to have expired Dec. 31.

The war on terrorism can’t wait for more debate, Republicans said.

“Civil liberties do not mean much when you are dead,” Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., told the Senate.

The Senate voted 69-30 Tuesday — 60 votes were needed — to limit debate and bring the legislation to a final vote. The Senate is expected to pass the measure as early as Wednesday, barring Democratic procedural maneuvers. The House then is expected to approve it and send the bill to Bush’s desk next week.

Despite the bill’s progress, deep misgivings remain even among its chief supporters.

Specter vows more hearings
One of them, Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., was in the odd position Tuesday of urging his colleagues to pass a bill so flawed that he planned new legislation and hearings to fix it.

“The issue is not concluded,” said Specter, R-Pa. He said he plans more legislation and hearings on restoring House-rejected curbs on government power.

His bill would make the government satisfy a higher threshold for warrantless wiretaps and would set a four-year expiration date for the use of National Security Letters in terrorism investigations.

However appetizing to Specter’s colleagues in the Senate, the new bill contains items House Republicans flatly rejected during talks last year.

Sensenbrenner has insisted that once the House approves the renewal and sends it to Bush, his chamber is done with the issue for the year.

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