WASHINGTON—Congress appeared ready to leave town Wednesday night without renewing the USA Patriot Act, leaving the post-Sept. 11 anti-terrorism law to expire on Dec. 31.
A bipartisan group of 52 senators—including eight Republicans—was blocking the act's renewal on grounds that some of its terms threaten Americans' civil liberties. They turned deaf ears Wednesday to impassioned pleas from President Bush and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales that the law is essential to the war against terrorism.
Bush charged that Democrats trying to score political points caused the Senate stalemate.
"The Senate Democratic leader recently boasted about killing the Patriot Act," Bush told reporters at the White House. "This obstruction is inexcusable. The senators obstructing the Patriot Act need to understand that the expiration of this vital law will endanger America and will leave us in a weaker position in the fight against brutal killers."
The president didn't mention that four Republican senators—Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, Larry Craig of Idaho, John Sununu of New Hampshire and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska—had joined all 44 Democrats to block the act's renewal by vowing a filibuster, an extended debate that can be ended only by 60 votes in the 100-member Senate.
Those four joined four other Senate Republicans—Lincoln Chaffee of Rhode Island, Mike Crapo of Idaho and Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine—in signing a letter with the 44 Democratic senators. It urged Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., to let the Patriot Act be extended by three months to give lawmakers time to add civil liberties protections to the act.
"They ought to extend it—three months, six months or a year—we ought to not let it expire," said Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss.
If the Senate passed an extension measure, the House also would have to approve it before Bush could sign it into law, and the House is scheduled to remain in recess until Jan. 31. The House previously voted to renew the act as it is, not to extend it temporarily.
But Frist and the White House showed no interest in a short-term extension and were seeking an up-or-down vote on renewing the act as it is. Frist could call the Senate back into session next week in a last-ditch effort to salvage the act, but interrupting the lawmakers' already long-delayed holiday time off would be very unpopular with his colleagues and might not enhance prospects of the act's renewal.
The act gives law enforcement agencies enhanced powers to search and seize an array of personal documents, ranging from medical and financial records to library lending lists.
It requires investigators who want to seize such records to convince a court that the records are "relevant" to a terrorism investigation. That's a far lower threshold than the "probable cause" standard required to get a warrant in a criminal case.
Opponents say the law doesn't sufficiently protect innocent Americans. Senate opponents have taken particular aim at Section 215, which allows a special judge to issue an order for "any tangible thing" that investigators want in a foreign intelligence investigation.
Critics call that a "gag order" because it prohibits the holder of the records from talking to anyone about the order.
"Giving someone an opportunity to challenge a gag order doesn't inhibit law enforcement's ability to do their job," said Sununu. "Being fair and getting rid of a punitive provision that requires you to go to the FBI, tell them if you talked to a lawyer and name that lawyer—which is nowhere else in law—doesn't undermine law enforcement's ability to do their job."
Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee had offered a glimmer of hope earlier Wednesday afternoon, saying that he was edging the opposing factions closer to a deal.
Specter said he had obtained commitments from four Republican critics of the bill to switch their votes and support it on the condition that their civil liberties concerns would be addressed in legislation next year. But by Wednesday evening, he still needed three more Democrats to overcome the filibuster.
"I wanted to get the other three on a commitment that we would take up their concerns and vote for them. ... That was our best shot," Specter said. "Now a lot of people have left. This is a time of the year when tempers are at their worst. We're in the last 10 seconds of this affair and everybody is just frayed."
He said he saw no opportunity to resolve the issue before the bill expires.
"I don't see any other alternative," he said. "Sad story."
The USA Patriot Act was passed after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and has remained controversial. Proponents say the act is a necessary tool in the war on terrorism. Critics say some of its provisions infringe on American civil liberties. Here's a look at some of the more controversial provisions:
_ Roving Wiretaps. Section 206 allows a single wiretap authorization to cover multiple devices, ending the need for law enforcement to seek separate court authorizations for a suspect's multiple communications devices.
_ Records Access. Section 215 gives law enforcement easier access to business records. Derisively called the "libraries provision" by critics, the provision gives a special judge the power to issue an order for "any tangible thing" sought by law enforcement in foreign intelligence investigations. The provision also contains a "gag order" that prohibits the record holders from telling anyone about the order. Civil libertarians, library groups and bookstore owners oppose the measure.
_ Information Sharing. Section 203(b) and (d) permits information from criminal investigations to be shared with intelligence agencies and other parts of the government. Supporters contend that this helps improve teamwork among intelligence and law enforcement agencies. Critics say sharing information could produce large databases about people who aren't under investigation.
_ E-mails. Section 212 allows communications providers to inform law enforcement about suspicious e-mails if there's an immediate threat of physical injury.
_ Eavesdropping: Section 217 permits the government to listen to electronic communications, with no judicial oversight, if one party agrees.
The full text of the act is available at:
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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