WASHINGTON—In a strong rebuke of President Bush, Senate Democrats and a small band of renegade Republicans blocked a vote Friday to extend the Patriot Act, the anti-terrorism law that broadened law enforcement powers after the Sept. 11 attacks.
With the current law set to expire on Dec. 31, the Senate move sets up a game of brinkmanship with the White House, which refused to accept Democratic entreaties to extend the deadline by three months to allow time to make further changes to the law.
The vote was one in a series of recent defeats for Bush on what had been one of his strongest issues—security against terrorism. On Thursday, Bush reluctantly accepted a provision pushed by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., that would ban the use of inhumane, degrading and cruel treatment against foreign prisoners under American control.
On Friday, the House of Representatives also called on the administration to inform Congress about any secret prisons the CIA may be operating in foreign countries.
The Patriot Act stalled after Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., fell seven votes short of the 60 votes needed to bring the bill up for a final vote.
Republicans threatened to use the vote politically against Democrats, portraying them as weak on national security. Democrats argued that an unchecked Bush administration was infringing on civil liberties in the name of fighting terrorism.
Supporters of the law said that if the Patriot Act weren't renewed, domestic law enforcement agencies, such as the FBI, and national intelligence agencies, such as the CIA, would no longer be able to share terrorism information.
"The Congress has a responsibility not to take away this vital tool that law enforcement and intelligence officials have used to protect the American people," Bush said in a statement. "The senators who are filibustering the Patriot Act must stop their delaying tactics so that we are not without this critical law for even a single moment."
Four Republicans joined all but two Democrats in opposing the legislation. They argued that they wanted to improve the bill, not let the act expire.
"We want to mend the Patriot Act, not end it," said Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
But in a Democratic rally after the vote, Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., took a more defiant tone: "We killed the Patriot Act," Reid declared to loud applause.
Though most lawmakers believe the pending bill generally improves the 2001 version of the Patriot Act, Democrats could be forced to accept up to a yearlong extension of the existing law while they negotiate a new version. It was unclear how Frist would proceed, but one option before him would be to add such an extension to a pending defense-spending bill.
Critics said the law needs to better protect Americans against law enforcement's ability to obtain a broad range of private records, including business and communications data, and medical, financial and library records. Though the new bill allows citizens to challenge requests for such records, authorities are given greater leeway than in standard criminal investigations.
"We're a democracy," Leahy thundered before the vote. "Let's have checks and balances."
Republicans voting to block the bill were Sens. John Sununu of New Hampshire, Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, Larry Craig of Idaho and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. Democrats Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Tim Johnson of South Dakota voted with Republicans in support of the legislation.
Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., argued that the bill reflected the best compromise that the Senate could work out with a House bill that contained looser civil liberties provisions.
"I don't think, in all candor, we're going to get any better bill in negotiations with the House of Representatives," Specter said. "It's just not going to happen."
The vote came on the same day that a front-page story in The New York Times reported that hundreds, and possibly thousands, of Americans had their international phone calls and e-mails monitored by the federal government without a warrant. The article said Bush signed a secret executive order after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that allowed the National Security Agency, the eavesdropping arm of the U.S. intelligence apparatus, to listen to and read certain communications without judicial approval.
The Patriot Act doesn't affect the work of the National Security Agency, but Specter said the account was "very, very problemsome, if not devastating" to the bill.
The new Patriot Act would make permanent 14 of the 16 provisions of the current law that are set to expire Dec. 31. Two others—one that allows for "roving" wiretaps on cell phones and one that permits seizure of business records—would expire in four years.
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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