In a major setback for the White House on a top domestic priority, the Senate on Wednesday passed a six-month extension of the Patriot Act, due to expire Dec. 31, even though President Bush had demanded that most of the law become permanent.
The move effectively killed a House-Senate compromise that would have made permanent 14 of the 16 provisions of the statute, which gives law enforcement officials sweeping power to track and prosecute suspected terrorists. The House adopted the compromise last week.
But senators from both parties balked, saying the compromise legislation failed to include enough safeguards of civil liberties and privacy. They began filibustering the measure Friday and sustained the filibuster through the end of a tumultuous session Wednesday night, withstanding blistering public attacks by Bush, Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), who said that allowing the provisions to expire would put the American people at risk.
Ultimately, the Senate agreed to the six-month extension without opposition.
“We had a pretty broad coalition and it held together,” said Sen. John Sununu of New Hampshire, one of four Republicans who joined 43 Democrats on Friday to launch the filibuster.
The Senate Democratic minority seemed delighted by the rare and hard-fought victory over a president who since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has built his presidency around the pursuit of terrorists.
“The White House ... couldn’t break the filibuster, couldn’t break the bipartisan group,” said Sen. Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.), who led the fight against the House-Senate compromise legislation.
“It was only the president, the White House and Atty. Gen. Gonzales who wanted to play that game of chicken -- and they lost that game,” Feingold said. The administration had made it clear, he added, that “it was their way or the highway, but they did not prevail.”
Frist, who said Tuesday that he would not agree to a temporary extension, said Wednesday night that he had changed his mind when faced by what he described as a decision by Democrats “to kill the Patriot Act.” He said he decided that he wasn’t “going to let the Patriot Act die.”
In a written statement late Wednesday, Bush said that he appreciated the Senate’s work “to keep the existing Patriot Act in law” but that “the work of Congress on the Patriot Act is not finished.”
“The act will expire next summer, but the terrorist threat to America will not expire on that schedule,” Bush said.
If the House convenes today and agrees to the extension, as expected, and if Bush signs it, as expected, House and Senate negotiators will have six months to come up with a proposal.
“This is the way legislation used to be done when I first came here,” said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, who worked with the committee’s chairman, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), to negotiate the temporary extension. “There were many good things in this conference report, but not enough. Now we have six months to get it right.”
Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), another Judiciary Committee member, said the turning point came Wednesday morning when a bipartisan majority of senators -- 52 -- signed a letter urging Frist to support a three-month extension of the expiring measures. The letter touched off intense negotiations and high-level lobbying as the White House sought to persuade Republican senators to support the compromise legislation.
The administration found stiff resistance among the senators, some of whom resented the haste with which the Patriot Act was pushed through Congress by the Republican leadership within weeks of the Sept. 11 attacks.
“We should just extend it and if the White House objects, let them veto it,” Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) told reporters Wednesday afternoon. Lott did not sign the letter but indicated that he had little patience with the Senate leadership’s insistence that it would never agree to a temporary extension.
“You always say what you’re not gonna do till you lose, and then you do it,” Lott said. “Nobody will remember tomorrow that we said we weren’t going to extend it.”
Earlier Wednesday, Bush accused senators of engaging in an “inexcusable” obstruction of a law he said the nation could not afford to be without. “The expiration of this law will endanger America and will leave us in a weaker position in the fight against brutal killers,” he told reporters in Washington.
But the senators who said the House-Senate compromise did not offer enough safeguards of civil liberties insisted that there was an alternative.
“We have a bipartisan majority of the Senate that says the choice is not one particular version or no Patriot Act, but rather to continue the present Patriot Act,” Schumer said Wednesday afternoon.
The Patriot Act was meant to tear down the wall between law enforcement and intelligence agencies that some said hampered detection of the Sept. 11 plot and to give law enforcement new tools to find and prosecute terrorists in the United States. But it has made civil libertarians uneasy because it gives the federal government great leeway to wiretap and search the homes, offices and business records of U.S. citizens with limited judicial review.
The Bush administration says the law is a vital tool in its anti-terrorism arsenal and has pushed to make all its provisions -- some of which were written to expire at the end of this year -- permanent. After the House and the Senate passed different reauthorization proposals, negotiators came up with the compromise that they said struck a balance between the Senate’s measure, which required more judicial review, and the House version, which required less. The White House supported the compromise.
But on Friday, hours before the Senate was to consider the compromise, the New York Times reported that in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, Bush had authorized wiretapping hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Americans without seeking warrants from a secret court that deals with terrorism-related cases. Several senators said the revelation spurred them to vote against the compromise.
Bush has acknowledged authorizing the wiretaps and has said he has the authority to do so under the Constitution and a 2001 congressional resolution approving the use of force against Al Qaeda and the Taliban, the former regime in Afghanistan.
On the surface, the differences between the HouseSenate compromise and what dissident senators want do not seem huge.
For instance, the Senate version of the so-called library provision, which grants the government broad powers to obtain business records in terrorism investigations, would prevent government fishing expeditions by giving some discretion to a neutral judge to decide whether the requests for records are reasonable.
Opponents of the Senate version, including the Bush administration, said such changes would unnecessarily and dangerously tie the hands of law enforcement. The House version includes somewhat less judicial oversight.
Some outside experts said they were perplexed by the increasingly vituperative debate over changes they considered subtle.
“It is nonsensical,” said Michael Greenberger, a former Justice Department official who now heads the Center for Health and Homeland Security at the University of Maryland. “I think they are playing chicken with this thing.”
After the agreement on the six-month extension was announced, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said she was disappointed that the decision to extend the Patriot Act resulted in a delay in passage of a measure she sponsored to combat methamphetamine production.
Her proposal, which was included in the compromise legislation, would have restricted the sale of products containing ingredients used in the manufacture of methamphetamine.
“I am very disappointed combating the scourge of methamphetamine was not included in the compromise on the Patriot Act,” she said.
“This is a critical bill that has strong support in the Senate. The problem is that it got caught up in very difficult maneuvers at the end of the session. I will continue the fight to get this important legislation passed and am pleased that the Senate leadership has agreed to a vote in January or early February.”