WASHINGTON -- The fight over renewing the Patriot Act escalated yesterday, with the Bush administration saying that the nation's security depends on congressional approval before year's end and the Senate's top Democrat joining an effort to block its passage.
Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada and the Senate minority leader, supports efforts to delay the vote -- including a filibuster threatened by fellow Democrat Russ Feingold of Wisconsin -- ''so there will be more time to work on a good bipartisan bill," said his spokesman, Jim Manley.
Meanwhile, President Bush sent his top law enforcement officer to Capitol Hill to demand that Congress pass a House-Senate accord that would renew more than a dozen provisions of the act before they expire Dec. 31.
Delaying or blocking passage as opponents urge would ''make it much more difficult to restructure the Department of Justice in a way that continues the protection of this country," Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales told reporters on Capitol Hill on the eve of a House vote.
''The time to act is now," he added.
Senate Democrats joined by some Republicans want to extend the expiring provisions of the law by three months to give Congress time to add protections against what they say are excessive police powers.
''There's no reason to compromise right to due process, the right to a judicial review, fair and reasonable standards of evidence in the pursuit of our security," said Senator John E. Sununu, Republican of New Hampshire, one of several senators urging Congress to move the expiration date to March 31.
The House is expected to pass the accord today, but its success in the Senate has been unclear for weeks.
Reid's announcement escalates a pitched end-of-session debate in which supporters and opponents of the House-Senate agreement are trading barbs on who strikes the better balance between being tough on terrorists and protecting civil liberties.
About a dozen Republicans and Democrats in the Senate contend that the bill would give the government too much power to investigate people's private transactions -- including bank, library, medical, and computer records. They also say it wouldn't place enough limits on the FBI's use of ''national security letters," which compel third parties to produce those documents during terrorism investigations.
For the White House and congressional Republicans, renewing the centerpiece of Bush's war on terror is a top priority on the eve of midterm elections.
The vast majority of the Patriot Act passed after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks would remain in force even if the House-Senate agreement to renew the expiring provisions fails. The already permanent parts of the act give the government new legal tools to investigate terror suspects in the same way it probes organized crime. It also created new laws, including one against harboring terrorists.