GOP Senators Move to Advance Patriot Act

By LAURIE KELLMAN, Associated Press Writer
1 hour, 18 minutes ago

WASHINGTON - Senate Republicans moved Wednesday to prevent Democrats from trying to add more civil liberties safeguards to a renewal of the 2001 Patriot Act due to expire next week.

In a pair of votes orchestrated by Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., the Senate effectively shut off amendments to a compromise between the White House and libertarian-leaning Republicans allowing some court challenges to government demands for people's records in terrorism investigations.

Democrats complained that the negotiated limits would be virtually meaningless in practice.

"No one has the right to turn this body into a rubber stamp," said Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis., the act's chief opponent. "The White House played hardball and the decision was made by some to capitulate."

The procedural wrangling in the Senate prompted House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., to pull the measure off his chamber's schedule for the day. The House was not expected to vote on the matter until next week.

Still, the law appeared headed for passage before 16 major provisions were set to expire on March 10 if the bill renewing them is not signed into law by President Bush.

Congress already has extended the deadline twice on renewing the 2001 anti-terrorism law, which was to have expired Dec. 31.

The war on terror can't wait for more debate, Republicans said.

"Civil liberties do not mean much when you are dead," Sen. Jim Bunning (news, bio, voting record), R-Ky., told the Senate.

The Senate voted 69-30 Tuesday — 60 votes were needed — to limit debate and bring the legislation to a final vote. The Senate is expected to pass the measure as early as Wednesday, barring Democratic procedural maneuvers. The House then is expected to approve it and send the bill to Bush's desk next week.

Despite the bill's progress, deep misgivings remain even among its chief supporters.

One of them, Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., was in the odd position Tuesday of urging his colleagues to pass a bill so flawed that he planned new legislation and hearings to fix it.

"The issue is not concluded," said Specter, R-Pa. He said he plans more legislation and hearings on restoring House-rejected curbs on government power.

His bill would make the government satisfy a higher threshold for warrantless wiretaps and would set a four-year expiration date for the use of National Security Letters in terrorism investigations.

However appetizing to Specter's colleagues in the Senate, the new bill contains items House Republicans flatly rejected during talks last year.

Sensenbrenner has insisted that once the House approves the renewal and sends it to Bush, his chamber is done with the issue for the year.

That will be none too soon for some lawmakers. The standoff pushed renewing the law into this midterm election year. Senate leaders were forced to find a procedural way of getting the bill to a vote without losing the support of Sensenbrenner, the Bush administration and libertarian-leaning lawmakers — all before March 10.

The solution is a convoluted procedural dance that illustrates the razor-thin zone of agreement when it comes to Bush's terror-fighting law.

Congress will extend the Patriot Act by passing two pieces of legislation. The first is the same accord passed last year by the House and filibustered in the Senate by members who said it contained too few privacy protections. The second is, in effect, an amendment to the first that adds enough privacy protections to win over those same libertarian-leaning Republicans.