WASHINGTON—Bipartisan anxiety in the Senate over civil liberties protections could derail an extension of the Patriot Act, the post-Sept. 11 law that expanded the government's power to investigate terrorist activities.
The act is set to expire in less than three weeks. It's prized by the Bush administration, but this week three Senate Republicans have joined Democrats in threatening to block the bill extending it with a filibuster. That would require 60 senators to bring the issue to a vote, and the Senate is composed of 55 Republicans, 44 Democrats and one independent who usually votes with the Democrats.
"If it doesn't protect civil liberties, we should modify it," said Sen. John Sununu, R-N.H. "We should make sure that the protections are there so that no matter who holds the reins of power in the executive or the legislative or the judicial branches of government, those freedoms continue to be protected."
Sununu is a fiscal conservative who generally votes with President Bush and his party leadership, but he's a small-government libertarian on questions of privacy. That gives him common ground with liberals.
Joining Sununu are Republicans Larry Craig of Idaho and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. It was unclear whether there are enough senators to sustain a filibuster, but neither side was claiming that it had enough votes to prevail.
At issue are 16 expiring provisions of the Patriot Act that give the federal government more power to conduct searches and seizures, as well as wiretaps and surveillance of e-mail and other Internet communications. Under a new agreement struck by Senate and House of Representatives negotiators last week, 14 of the 16 provisions would become permanent law.
The remaining two would be extended four years. One provision—among the most controversial—would allow law enforcement authorities to obtain business records and other documents, including bookstore and library records. The other would permit "roving" wiretaps on phones and computers that track a suspect's communications without being limited to a single phone.
Advocates of the House-Senate agreement say the new legislation provides more protections than the law that Congress passed hurriedly in 2001.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., said the current law permits a law enforcement official to obtain business or library records without any judicial review. While the new law wouldn't require a finding of probable cause to conduct such a search, it would require law enforcement officials to show that there are "reasonable grounds" to believe that the information would be relevant to an investigation.
Specter also noted that the four-year expiration period was a victory for the Senate, because the House had voted for a 10-year extension.
"Our ability to review this act in four years is a mighty potent weapon to keep law enforcement on its toes," he said.
Sununu and Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, want Congress to approve a three-month extension of the current law to buy time for further work on the legislation.
The chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., rejected that idea and warned that if the Senate fails to pass the new bill, the main result would be to render the FBI and CIA unable to share intelligence.
"The consequence of the Patriot Act expiring on December 31st is going to be putting the American people at greater risk," he said.
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales also called for swift passage. "The tools in the reauthorization of the Patriot Act are very important to the success of the Department of Justice in protecting this country," he said.
Among other provisions:
_National security letters. Under current law, the FBI can issue national security letters to banks and communication companies to obtain customer records. The new law would permit recipients to challenge them in court.
_Methamphetamine production. The agreement would restrict the sale of cold medicines that can be used to make methamphetamine, a growing drug problem across the country. Over-the-counter sales of such medicines would be banned and monthly purchases limited.
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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