Specter opposes Patriot Act vote

Republican questions proposed extension

November 19, 2005|By MARY CURTIUS | MARY CURTIUS,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- Senate Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, joined yesterday with a bipartisan group of critics to reject a proposed agreement to extend the Patriot Act, dealing the White House an embarrassing setback and dashing its hopes that Congress would vote on the sweeping anti-terrorism law before adjourning for Thanksgiving.

Speaking at a news conference called by senators who have threatened to filibuster the House-backed legislation unless it provides greater privacy protections, Specter said he disagreed with House negotiators over the expiration dates for two of the law's 16 provisions.

"My view is that the Patriot Act needs further analysis and some revision from what is in the proposed conference report at the present time," Specter said. The statute expires Dec. 31, and pressure is building on Congress to act.

Specter said he wants four-year expiration dates for one provision that gives the FBI broad leeway to seize personal and business information - the so-called "library provision" - and a second provision that allows the FBI to wiretap any phone that a suspect uses. The current version has seven-year expiration dates.

The failure to win a vote yesterday came as the White House fights mounting perceptions on Capitol Hill that President Bush, whose public approval ratings have plunged in recent weeks, is becoming a lame duck.

The Patriot Act, enacted just weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, is the centerpiece of the administration's domestic war on terrorism. Passed in both the Senate and House by huge margins, the law greatly expanded the powers of the FBI and the Justice Department to combat terrorism, in part by tearing down the legal wall between law enforcement authorities and intelligence investigators.

It met with resistance across the political spectrum, however, from those who feared government abuse of its broad powers to track and investigate suspects. Lawmakers from both parties have fought for greater congressional oversight and for expiration dates on some of the more controversial provisions.

The administration has urged that all the law's provisions be made permanent, saying it is a vital tool in the war on terrorism.

Also yesterday, lawmakers approved a $3,100 pay raise for themselves and postponed work on bills to curb spending on social programs and cut taxes in favor of a two-week vacation.

Republicans spent the day celebrating a party-line, post-midnight vote in which the House cleared legislation to reduce deficits by $50 billion over five years. The vote was 217-215, with all the Democrats who voted in opposition, along with 14 GOP rebels.

Also, spending bills that passed yesterday included huge sums for projects in Maryland, along with an average raise for federal workers of 3.1 percent for civilian and military employees.

The bill covering military construction contains about $173 million for in-state projects, including almost $25 million for the first phase of construction of a new field house at the U.S. Naval Academy and $34 million for a joint medical logistics center at Fort Detrick.

The bill for transportation, the Department of Housing and Urban Development and other agencies is stuffed with more than $175 million for Maryland. The state has only two lawmakers on the powerful appropriations committees, but both -- Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski and Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, both Democrats - sit on the subcommittees that helped to craft the bill.

Mary Curtius writes for the Los Angeles Times. Sun reporter Gwyneth K. Shaw contributed to this article.

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