Efforts to resolve House and Senate differences over a revised USA Patriot Act have reached a stalemate, a key committee chairman said yesterday. That means the current version of the law is likely to remain in place through next month or longer unless Senate Democrats and a handful of Republicans drop their demands for greater privacy safeguards in a proposed renewal, the chairman said.
But another senator said that the Bush administration continues to discuss possible changes, and that a resolution of the impasse is still possible.
The law, passed in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, makes it easier for federal agents to secretly tap phones, obtain library and bank records, and search the homes of suspected terrorists. Many major provisions were scheduled to expire Dec. 31, but lawmakers extended them to Feb. 3 in hopes of resolving a House-Senate impasse on how to renew the act, with some changes, for four years.
Senate Democrats objected to the revision that emerged from a conference committee last year. When four Republicans joined them, they had a filibuster-proof contingent, preventing the proposal from winning Senate passage.
The chief House negotiator -- Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) -- has said his chamber is finished with talks, dimming hopes for a breakthrough. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) had accepted the House-Senate compromise as a less-than-perfect option. Yesterday, he told colleagues that it probably is the best deal they can get.
"I can tell you, after talking to Chairman Sensenbrenner, that the House feels that they've gone as far as they can go on compromises on the act," Specter told colleagues. "And I think the reality may be that we're looking at either the current act extended [beyond Feb. 3], or the conference report," which continues to draw opposition from most Senate Democrats and four Republicans.
One of the four -- Sen. John E. Sununu (R-N.H.) -- said in an interview yesterday that in recent days he has held discussions with administration officials focused on "the few specific areas where we think the conference report can be improved." If a compromise cannot be reached by Feb. 3, he said, another short-term extension may provide the needed time.
The main disagreements center on provisions that allow FBI agents to obtain records on terrorism suspects, who have very limited options for challenging such searches. Specter has said the law allows adequate "judicial review" of proposed searches. But Sununu and his allies say the law makes it virtually impossible for targeted people to prevail, even if they have no ties to terrorism.