Patriot Act renewal moves a step closer to vote in Senate
Privacy concerns spur vow of more legislation, debate
WASHINGTON -- Months overdue in a midterm election year, the USA Patriot Act renewal cleared a final hurdle in the Senate yesterday on its way to President Bush's desk. But the bill's sponsor said he is unsatisfied with the measure's privacy protections and warned that lawmakers are far from done tinkering with the centerpiece of Bush's war on terrorism.
''The issue is not concluded," said Arlen Specter, Republican of Pennsylvania and the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman. He said he plans more legislation and hearings on restoring some provisions, rejected by the House, that would curb government power.
The Senate voted 69 to 30 yesterday -- 60 votes were needed -- to limit debate and bring the bill to a final vote, which could occur as early as today. The House then would vote and send the legislation to the White House. Sixteen major provisions would expire March 10 if Bush doesn't sign the bill by then.
First passed in the weeks after the 2001 terrorist attacks, the law has been extended twice for lack of congressional accord over the balance between civil liberties protections and law enforcement tools in terrorism investigations.
In a protest over the GOP majority's refusal to allow amendments, several Democratic senators voted ''no" on the test vote yesterday, but said they would vote for the bill on final passage. They included the Senate minority leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, and Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the Judiciary Committee's senior Democrat.
Others still plan to vote against the bill as a whole, but they stand little chance of blocking it. Led by Senators Russell D. Feingold, Democrat of Wisconsin, and Robert C. Byrd, Democrat of West Virginia, they contend that months of haggling have produced few meaningful curbs on government power.
Specter agreed on that point. Even as he urged his colleagues to vote this week for the measure, he introduced a separate bill to make the government satisfy a higher threshold for warrantless wiretaps and to 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 represents items that House Republicans had flatly rejected during talks last year.
The House Judiciary Committee chairman, F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., a Wisconsin Republican, has insisted that once the House approves the renewal and sends it to Bush, his chamber is done with the issue for the year.
That will be none too soon for some lawmakers. The standoff pushed renewing the law into this midterm election year. Senate leaders were forced to find a procedural way of getting the bill to a vote without losing the support of Sensenbrenner, the Bush administration, and libertarian-leaning lawmakers -- all before March 10.
The solution is a convoluted procedural dance that illustrates the razor-thin zone of agreement when it comes to Bush's terror-fighting law.
Congress will extend the Patriot Act by passing two pieces of legislation. The first is the same accord passed last year by the House and filibustered in the Senate by members who said it contained too few privacy protections. The second is, in effect, an amendment to the first that adds enough privacy protections to win over those same libertarian-leaning Republicans.
Senator Bill Frist of Tennessee, the majority leader, is permitting no other amendments, allowing the measure to slide through both houses without extended debate.
Feingold, who has opposed the act since his lone ''no" vote against the 2001 law, said the lack of amendments turned the Senate ''into a rubber stamp" for the Bush administration.
But Senator Jim Bunning, Republican of Kentucky, countered that the war on terrorism couldn't wait for more debate. ''Civil liberties do not mean much when you are dead," Bunning said.