WASHINGTON — With the Senate voting Thursday to renew the USA Patriot Act, the measure moves to the House, which is expected to pass the legislation next week.
On or before March 10, President Bush is expected to renew the law that broadens the power of the U.S. government to obtain private records and to conduct wiretaps and searches, despite the deep bipartisan misgivings of some in Congress.
The Senate voted, 89-10, to renew the Act after adding new privacy protections designed to strike a better balance between privacy rights and the government’s power to hunt down terrorists.
One bright spot for Bush
The Senate vote marked a bright spot in Bush’s troubled second term as his approval ratings dipped over the war in Iraq and his administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina. Renewing the act, Bush and congressional Republicans said, was key to preventing more terror attacks in the United States.
Bush applauded the Senate for overcoming “partisan attempts to block its passage.” The House was expected to approve the two-bill package next week and send it to the president, who would sign it before 16 provisions expire March 10.
“This bill will allow our law enforcement officials to continue to use the same tools against terrorists that are already used against drug dealers and other criminals, while safeguarding the civil liberties of the American people,” Bush said in a statement from India.
Critics held their ground. A December filibuster led by Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis., and joined by several libertarian-leaning Republicans, forced the Bush administration to agree to modest new curbs on the government’s power to probe library, bank and other records.
Feingold bloodied but unbowed
Feingold insisted those new protections are cosmetic. “Americans want to defeat terrorism and they want the basic character of this country to survive and prosper,” he said. “They want both security and liberty, and unless we give them both — and we can if we try — we have failed.”
Some lawmakers who voted for the package acknowledged deep reservations about the power it would grant to any president.
“Our support for the Patriot Act does not mean a blank check for the president,” said Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada, who voted to pass the bill package. “What we tried to do on a bipartisan basis is have a better bill. It has been improved.”
Not enough even for the bill’s chief sponsor in the Senate, Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa. After prolonged negotiations produced a House-Senate compromise, Specter urged his colleagues to pass it even as he promised to introduce a new measure and hold hearings on how to fix it.
For now, Bush and his Republican allies savor a significant victory. For months, their tough-on-terrorism image has been tarnished by the revelation that the president authorized a secret domestic wiretapping program.
Tangled path to renewal
The report in December gave Democrats ammunition for their charge that the Bush administration had run amok in its zeal to root out terrorists.
With the help of some Republicans, they blocked a vote on whether to renew the law before 16 provisions expired on Dec. 31.
GOP leaders were unable to break the gridlock, so Congress opted instead to extend the deadline twice while negotiations continued. In the end, the White House and the Republicans broke the stalemate by crafting a second measure that would curb some powers of law enforcement officials seeking information. Both will be sent as a package to Bush.
This second bill — in effect an amendment to the measure renewing the 16 provisions — would add new protections to the 2001 antiterror law in three areas.
- Give recipients of court-approved subpoenas for information in terrorist investigations the right to challenge a requirement that they refrain from telling anyone.
- Eliminate a requirement that an individual provide the FBI with the name of a lawyer consulted about a National Security Letter, which is a demand for records issued by investigators.
- Clarify that most libraries are not subject to demands in those letters for information about suspected terrorists.
Passed in the weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the original Patriot Act expanded the government’s surveillance and prosecutorial powers against suspected terrorists, their associates and financiers.
Act’s new provisions
The renewal package would make 14 of 16 temporary provisions permanent and set four-year expirations on the others.
The renewal includes several measures not directly related to terrorism. One would make it harder for illicit labs to obtain ingredients for methamphetamine by requiring pharmacies to sell nonprescription cold medicines only from behind the counter.
Another focuses on port security, imposing new criminal sanctions and a death sentence in certain circumstances for placing a device or substance in U.S. waters that could damage vessels or cargo.
Feingold’s chief ally, Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., said the package was not enough to check what he described as a presidential tendency through history of “always grabbing more power.”
“The erosion of freedom rarely comes as an all-out frontal assault,” warned Byrd, the dean of the Senate. “Rather, it is a gradual, noxious creeping cloaked in secrecy and glossed over by reassurances of greater security.”
The “no” votes came from Jim Jeffords, I-Vt., and Feingold, Byrd and seven other Senate Democrats: Daniel Akaka of Hawaii, Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, Tom Harkin of Iowa, Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Carl Levin of Michigan, Patty Murray of Washington and Ron Wyden of Oregon.
Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, did not vote.
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