The Republican-led House bowed to a White House veto threat Thursday and stood by the USA Patriot Act, defeating an effort to block the part of the anti-terrorism law that helps the government investigate people’s reading habits.
The effort to defy President Bush and bridle the law’s powers lost by 210-210, with a majority needed to prevail. The amendment appeared on its way to victory as the roll call’s normal 15-minute time limit expired, but Republican leaders kept the vote open for about 20 more minutes as they persuaded about 10 Republicans who initially supported the provision to change their votes.
The measure had been pushed by a coalition of Democrats and conservative Republicans. But they fell short in a showdown that came just four months before an election in which the conduct of the fight against terrorism will be on the political agenda.
Besides successfully fending off the effort to weaken the law, the veto threat underscored the administration’s determination to strike an aggressive stance on law enforcement and terrorism.
The House has voted before to block portions of the nearly three-year-old law, but Congress has never succeeded in rolling back any of it. Yet neither has Bush succeeded in his quest to expand some of its powers.
Supporters of the law said the Patriot Act has been a valuable tool in anti-terror efforts. The law, enacted in the weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, gave the government stronger powers to conduct investigations and detain people.
“I would say, in my judgment, that lives have been saved, terrorists have been disrupted, and our country is safer” because of the act, said Rep. Porter Goss, R-Fla., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and a man President Bush is considering to be the next director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
Rep. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., and Rep. C.L. Butch Otter, R-Idaho, led the effort to block one section of the law that lets authorities get special court orders requiring book dealers, libraries and others to surrender records such as purchases and Internet sites visited on a library computer. They contended the provision undermines civil liberties and threatens to let the government snoop into the reading habits of innocent Americans.
“We are all in that together,” Sanders, one of Congress’ most liberal lawmakers, said of the anti-terror effort. “In the fight against terrorism, we’ve got to keep our eyes on two prizes: the terrorists and the United States Constitution.”
The House voted last summer to block so-called “sneak and peek” searches the law allows without the target’s knowledge and with warrants delivered afterward, but the provision never became law. Otter, a conservative, abandoned a similar amendment Thursday after it was ruled out of order for procedural reasons.
Thursday’s showdown was over an amendment to a $39.8 billion measure financing the Justice, Commerce and State departments for next year. It came amid Bush administration warnings of an increased risk of attacks as this summer and fall because terrorists are hoping to disrupt this November’s elections.
Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said Thursday the government is bolstering security in light of credible reports about al-Qaida’s plans. Officials familiar with briefings for members of Congress this week said there is no evidence indicating a specific time or place for an attack.
Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., read a letter from the Justice Department stating that “as recently as this past winter and spring, a member of a terrorist group closely affiliated with al-Qaida” had used Internet services at a public library. The letter mentioned no specifics, Wolf said.
“If we can stop what took place in my area,” said Wolf, whose district is near the Pentagon, “then I want to stop that, because we’ve gone to enough funerals.”
Critics of the Patriot Act argued that without it, investigators can still obtain book store and other records simply by obtaining subpoenas or search warrants. Those traditional investigative tools are harder to get from grand juries or courts than the orders issued under the Patriot Act, which do not require authorities to show probable cause.
“We don’t want tyranny,” said Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y.
Attorney General John Ashcroft said last September that the FBI has never requested any records from libraries or businesses under the Patriot Act.
But the American Civil Liberties Union, which is suing the FBI over its powers to demand information from Internet providers about customers, says it believes the FBI may have used that authority since Ashcroft made his remarks.