Patriot Act extension shelved
Privacy concerns delay legislation

By Rick Klein, Globe Staff | November 19, 2005

WASHINGTON -- Capping another tough week for President Bush and top Republicans in Congress, a bipartisan backlash yesterday forced congressional leaders to shelve a bill to extend provisions of the USA Patriot Act that expire at the end of the year.

Sidetracking the White House's push to preserve the expanded police powers authorized after the 2001 terrorist attacks, a rare coalition of liberal Democrats and conservative Republican lawmakers are demanding that the bill's more controversial provisions -- set to run out at the end of December -- should include more civil-liberties safeguards.

They want federal authorities to notify targets of secret, ''sneak-and-peek" searches within seven days of executing the warrant; get a judge's approval before searching medical, financial, and library records; and allow the subjects of an investigation to challenge court gag orders issued against them.

''We can protect civil liberties and still fight the war on terrorism," said Senator John E. Sununu, Republican of New Hampshire, who joined a group of senators threatening to filibuster the measure as crafted by the Bush administration and House leaders. ''We think we can work out bipartisan compromise, a reasonable compromise."

Earlier this year, the House and Senate passed versions of Patriot Act extensions. But members of both legislative bodies are at odds over the final draft of the bill that they will send to President Bush.

The biggest sticking point is the new expiration date of the provisions that will run out in December. The White House and some GOP leaders in Congress want the renewed provisions kept intact for at least seven years, but a solid bloc of lawmakers want them reviewed sooner.

''There ought to be a four-year sunset so we can review it again in a reasonably timely fashion," said Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Arlen Specter, whose panel has jurisdiction over the matter.

The White House and its congressional allies have lobbied to extend the Patriot Act without substantial changes and, with only a few days left on the year's legislative calendar, they want action fast. With lawmakers scheduled to spend the next two weeks in their home states for Thanksgiving recess, White House chief of staff Andrew H. Card Jr. made a personal appeal to lawmakers at the Capitol on Thursday.

But Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, said yesterday afternoon that the Senate's impasse with House negotiators, who favor the administration's version of the bill, could not be resolved by week's end. That means Congress will have to deal with the Patriot Act in December and rush to beat the expiration date.

Senator Jeff Sessions, an Alabama Republican and supporter of the act as written, said the impasse ''is a very risky thing" because the deadline clock is ticking, although Specter and other lawmakers say they would not let the key provisions expire. ''I can't imagine that we've allowed this to happen," Sessions said. ''The Patriot Act has without a doubt made us immeasurably safer."

The stalemate was the latest headache for Bush and leading Republican lawmakers last week. A day after the Senate mandated that Bush give Congress regular progress reports on the Iraq war, influential House Democrat John P. Murtha of Pennsylvania -- a decorated Vietnam veteran who had supported the war -- called for an immediate troop pullout.

Early yesterday, House leaders eked out a victory on a long- delayed bill that would slice $50 billion in federal spending over five years after a rancorous session that lasted until early morning. Hours before, Democrats and moderate Republicans joined forces to reject a spending measure that included even deeper cuts to education and social programs.

The original Patriot Act, drafted in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, passed both houses of Congress with little conflict. But the current debate has united conservatives and liberals who protest that the expiring provisions allow the government to infringe on civil liberties.
At a news conference yesterday, solid conservatives such as Sununu and Senator Larry E. Craig, an Idaho Republican, joined liberals such as Senator Richard J. Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, and Representative Bernard Sanders, a Vermont independent.

The Bush administration's request for a seven-year Patriot Act extension has angered some Republicans, who note that the controversial provisions would stay on the books through the rest of Bush's presidency and most of the first term of his successor.

''I didn't come to Washington, D.C., to expand the police powers of the federal government," said Representative Dana Rohrabacher, Republican of California. ''To make these temporary expansions of police power permanent as our way of life, changing our way of life in America, altering the balance of liberty and police powers, is outrageous."

The law's defenders say fears about the Patriot Act are overblown. Targets of investigations are always ultimately informed of searches that involve them, and law enforcement agencies such as the FBI have used the act judiciously, said Senator Jon Kyl, Republican of Arizona. ''It's important that we get this done, and not leave here until we have given our law enforcement officials the tools they need to protect us," Kyl said.

But the lawmakers who held up a vote on the law yesterday said they only want to add more safeguards. Earlier this year, the Senate unanimously passed a version of the act that would empower judges to review government requests for secret information.

''We honestly believed that what came out of the Senate would not only keep America safe, it would protect our basic freedoms," said Durbin, the assistant minority leader. ''This is a bill which gives the government the authority and power to deal with terrorism, but does it in the context of protecting our basic American freedoms."

Though Specter said his biggest concern is how long the law will last, he said a filibuster in the Senate is still possible if other changes are not made.

Senator Russell D. Feingold, the Wisconsin Democrat who was the only senator to vote against the Patriot Act in 2001, said he will review the new bill to see whether it adequately protects personal privacy. ''We should not allow even four more years of the violation of people's rights with regards to their business and library records when they've done absolutely nothing wrong by any real standard," Feingold said.

Rick Klein can be reached at

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