House OKs Renewal of Key Patriot Act Powers
The House voted Thursday to make permanent most of the key provisions of the USA Patriot Act, the sweeping law that was passed in the weeks after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and that greatly expanded law enforcement powers to investigate suspected terrorists.
Just hours after the London transit system was bombed for the second time in two weeks, House members opened a daylong debate on the Patriot Act.
Supporters of the law said the London attacks underscored the importance of the act, which the Bush administration has said is a vital tool in the fight against terrorism. Critics said that Congress should more thoroughly review and amend a law that they contended was passed in haste and could allow government abuses of privacy and civil liberties.
The bill passed on a largely partisan vote of 257-171 after the Republican-controlled House -- over the objections of Democrats -- limited debate to fewer than half of the proposed amendments.
But in the House and the Senate, which will take up its version of the legislation soon, the Republican majorities seem to be moving toward something less than the blanket reauthorization of the Patriot Act that President Bush has publicly urged.
Bush alluded to that possibility in a statement late Thursday acknowledging the House vote. “The Patriot Act is a key part of our efforts to combat terrorism and protect the American people,” he said. “And the Congress needs to send me a bill soon that renews the act without weakening our ability to fight terror.”
He has urged Congress to make permanent all 16 provisions of the Patriot Act that are due to expire at the end of this year. The House measure comes close, making 14 of the provisions permanent.
But it would limit renewal of two of the more controversial sections to 10 years: One permits phone wiretaps to apply to any telephone a suspect uses, including cellphones, and not just a specific telephone number. The other allows the government to go to a secret court for permission to search a broad array of personal records, including library and medical records.
Among the sections the House bill would make permanent is one that allows greater information-sharing among intelligence agencies, federal prosecutors and grand juries, and another that allows nationwide search warrants for electronic evidence.
Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), chairman of the Judiciary Committee and principal author of the Patriot Act, said sunset provisions were unnecessary in the absence of evidence that the government had abused its new powers and when Congress was performing vigorous oversight.
Rep. David Dreier (R-San Dimas) agreed, noting that when the legislation was proposed four years ago, he had insisted on limiting the life of the 16 sections to ensure “the civil liberties of the American people.”
He said he would still demand limits “if we had seen failure, if we had seen violations of civil liberties” -- but he emphasized that no such failures or violations had occurred.
Civil libertarians, who oppose the Patriot Act as an unwarranted augmentation of the federal government’s power to mount secret surveillance of suspects and seize records without immediate court review, fought the cancellation of the sunset provisions. Without such provisions, they argued, it would be harder for Congress to guard against government abuse.
“We now know that some of the provisions in the Patriot Act went too far too fast,” said Lisa Graves, a senior counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union, which has led the opposition to the law.
Voting in favor of the bill were 43 Democrats and 214 Republicans. Opposing it were 156 Democrats, 14 Republicans and one independent.
California lawmakers split largely along party lines. Almost all of the GOP members of the delegation voted for the bill, as did Democrats Joe Baca of Rialto and Jane Harman of Venice. The remaining Democrats and Republican Dana Rohrabacher of Huntington Beach voted against it. Republican Bill Thomas of Bakersfield did not vote.
The Senate moved ahead Thursday with its own reauthorization of the Patriot Act, as the Judiciary Committee unanimously approved changes to its bill after an all-night session and sent it on for consideration by the whole chamber. That bill differs in key respects from the House measure and would apply additional curbs on law enforcement.
It would, for example, impose more restrictions on the government’s ability to search a suspect’s medical records and other records than the House bill does, and would also shorten the period of time the government had to wait before informing a suspect that the government had searched his home or office.
That bill would grant extensions of four years on the “roving wiretap” provision and on the section that allows library and medical records to be searched.
It is unclear when that measure -- or a competing one, approved by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, that would make permanent all 16 sections of the act -- will come up for debate. Congress is in session one more week before adjourning for a monthlong summer recess.
Sen. Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.) said the bill approved by the Judiciary Committee went a long way toward addressing concerns voiced by Democrats, but cautioned that “the House bill being considered today is very different from this one,” as is the Senate Intelligence Committee bill.
In a statement, Feingold urged the Senate to fight for passage of the bipartisan Judiciary Committee bill.