House Ready, Senate Balks on Patriot Act

JESSE J. HOLLAND, Associated Press | December 14 2005

WASHINGTON - The GOP-controlled House plans to quickly renew portions of the USA Patriot Act before they expire at the end of the year. Some Republicans say the nation's safety could be endangered if the Senate doesn't follow suit.

The House on Wednesday was expected to pass a White House-backed bill that would renew more than a dozen provisions of the Act — the government's premier anti-terrorism law — which are due to expire Dec. 31.

But saving those provisions will be more difficult in the Republican-controlled Senate, where some GOP and Democratic senators are unsatisfied with the compromise bill, which was worked out last week between key Republicans in the House and Senate.

At least one senator, Democrat Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, is threatening a filibuster.

House leaders and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales on Tuesday warned the bill's opponents that they could be putting the country in danger by holding up the Act's reauthorization.

"The consequence of the Patriot Act expiring on December 31st is going to be putting the American people at greater risk," House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., said.

Added Gonzales: "The tools in the reauthorization of the Patriot Act are very important to the success of the Department of Justice in protecting this country."

For the White House and congressional Republicans, renewing the centerpiece of President Bush's war on terror is a top priority with the midterm elections coming up next year.

Bush devoted his Saturday radio address to the subject and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., added his voice Sunday.

Congress overwhelmingly passed the Patriot Act after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The law expanded the government's surveillance and prosecutorial powers against suspected terrorists, their associates and financiers.

The vast majority of the Patriot Act would remain in force even if the House-Senate agreement to renew the expiring provisions fails. The reauthorization language would extend for four years two of the Patriot Act's most controversial provisions — authorizing roving wiretaps and permitting secret warrants for books, records and other items from businesses, hospitals and organizations such as libraries.

Those provisions would expire in four years unless Congress acted on them again.

About a dozen Republicans and Democrats in the Senate are complaining that the Patriot Act gives government too much power to investigate people's private transactions, including bank, library, medical and computer records. They also say it doesn't place enough limits on the FBI's use of National Security Letters, which compel thirds parties to produce those documents during terrorism investigations.

Senate Democrats joined by some libertarian-leaning Republicans want to extend the expiring provisions of the law by three months to give Congress time to add more protections against what they say are excessive police powers.

"There's no reason to compromise right to due process, the right to a judicial review, fair and reasonable standards of evidence in the pursuit of our security," said Sen. John E. Sununu (news, bio, voting record), R-N.H., one of several senators urging Congress to move the expiration date to March 31.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., supports efforts to delay the vote, including a filibuster threatened by Feingold, "so there will be more time to work on a good bipartisan bill," said his spokesman, Jim Manley.