House Renews 16 Provisions of the Patriot Act
The House voted Wednesday to extend 16 expiring provisions of the Patriot Act, sending the controversial anti-terrorism legislation to the Senate, where it faces an uncertain future.
The 251-174 vote would make 14 provisions of the law permanent, including one that eliminates barriers to intelligence agents and prosecutors sharing information. Two other sections, including one known as the library provision, would expire in four years unless Congress renewed them.
The compromise legislation is expected to be taken up as soon as Friday by the Senate, where opposition appears to be growing. A bipartisan group of senators is demanding changes and has vowed to lead a filibuster.
Wednesday’s margin of victory -- much narrower than when lawmakers cleared the original Patriot Act four years ago -- signaled potential trouble for supporters in the Senate. There were indications that even the Republican leadership was developing a fallback position to extend the law if the senior chamber failed to ratify the House-backed bill.
President Bush urged the Senate to promptly pass the legislation, saying it was essential in preventing the nation’s enemies from striking again.
“In the war on terror, we cannot afford to be without this law for a single moment,” Bush said in a statement issued by the White House.
Renewing the law, which to critics has come to symbolize civil liberties abuses after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, would be a year-end political victory for the White House.
The Justice Department pointed to 30 new provisions in the legislation that it said would enhance privacy rights and civil liberties.
The legislation would make explicit the right of recipients of records requests to go to court, and would require senior Justice Department approval before investigators could seek certain records, such as those from a library. The bill requires the department to issue regular reports to Congress about its use of the law.
In extending two of the measures temporarily, the “sunset” provisions would also put investigators on a shorter leash.
But critics said the changes did not go far enough.
“Sunsets ... are not a solution for a bad law,” Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) said during Wednesday’s floor debate. “Sunsets will be of no relief to those who have their constitutional rights violated in the next four years.”
Conyers and other critics cited concern with provisions on business records requests and administrative subpoenas known as national security letters, which they said were so broadly written that they allowed the government to snoop on innocent people. They would require the government to demonstrate a clearer connection between terrorism and the targets of the requests.
Republican supporters of the bill said critics had failed to show any abuses associated with the law.
“You would think that Halloween is tomorrow because of their attempt to scare the American public,” said Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and the chief architect of the legislation.
Congress is racing against a Dec. 31 deadline, when the 16 provisions of the act are set to expire.
On Tuesday, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) and Sen. John E. Sununu (R-N.H.) introduced legislation to temporarily extend the expiring provisions until March 31, 2006, to allow Congress more time to address problems with the legislation.
“A deadline which Congress imposed to ensure oversight and accountability should not now become a barrier to achieving bipartisan compromise and the best bill we can forge together,” Leahy said.
Associated Press reported Wednesday that Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) was talking to White House officials about a one-year extension of the existing law as a backup position if the Senate failed to pass the House bill. A spokeswoman for Frist, Amy Call, said he was focused on stopping the looming filibuster.
In a statement, Frist said he opposed a short-term extension of the law and called on his colleagues to follow the lead of the House.
Forty-four House Democrats joined with 207 Republicans to approve the bill, including Rep. Jane Harman of Venice. “My view of the Patriot Act is we need to mend it, not end it,” Harman said. “Today, we are mending it. Hopefully, soon we will mend it further.”