Compromise bill extending Patriot Act passed by House

Fate uncertain in Senate, where opposition seems to be growing

December 15, 2005|By RICHARD B. SCHMITT | RICHARD B. SCHMITT,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- The House voted yesterday to extend 16 expiring provisions of the USA Patriot Act, sending the anti-terror legislation to the Senate, where its fate is uncertain.

The House voted 251-174 - with 44 Democrats joining 207 Republicans - to make 14 provisions of the law permanent, including one that eliminates barriers to the sharing of information between intelligence agents and prosecutors. Two other sections would expire in four years unless renewed by Congress.

The compromise legislation is expected to be taken up as soon as tomorrow by the Senate, where opposition appears to be growing. A bipartisan group of senators is demanding changes and has vowed to lead a filibuster.

Yesterday's margin of victory - much narrower than when the House approved the original Patriot Act four years ago - also signaled potential trouble for supporters in the Senate.

There were indications that the Republican leadership was developing a fall-back position - extending the current law - in case the Senate does not ratify the House-backed bill.

President Bush urged the Senate to pass the legislation promptly, saying it is essential to preventing the nation's enemies from striking again.

"In the war on terror, we cannot afford to be without this law for a single moment," Bush said in a statement issued by the White House.

Renewing the law, which to critics has come to symbolize civil liberties abuses after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, would be a year-ending political victory for the White House.

The Justice Department pointed to 30 new provisions in the legislation that it said would guard privacy rights and civil liberties more than the original law did.

The legislation would make explicit the right of those who receive requests for records to go to court, and it would require senior Justice Department approval before investigators could seek certain sensitive records, such as those from a library.

The bill would require the department to issue regular reports to Congress about its use of the law. In extending two of the measures temporarily, the " sunset" provisions would also put investigators on a shorter leash.

Critics said the changes did not go far enough.

"Sunsets ... are not a solution for a bad law," Michigan Rep. John Conyers Jr., a Democrat, said during yesterday's floor debate. "Sunsets will be of no relief to those who have their constitutional rights violated in the next four years."

Conyers and other critics expressed concern with provisions on business records requests and administrative subpoenas known as national security letters, which they said are so broadly written that they allow the government to spy on innocent people. They would like to require the government to demonstrate a clearer connection between terrorism and the targets of the requests.

Republican supporters of the bill said critics had failed to show any abuses associated with the law.

"You would think that Halloween is tomorrow because of their attempt to scare the American public," said Wisconsin Rep. James F. Sensenbrenner Jr., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and the chief architect of the legislation.

Congress is racing against a deadline of Dec. 31, when the 16 provisions of the act are due to expire.

On Tuesday, Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, and Sen. John Sununu, a New Hampshire Republican, introduced legislation to temporarily extend the expiring provisions until March 31, to allow Congress more time to address problems with the legislation.

Forty-four House Democrats joined with 207 Republicans to approve the bill.

Maryland's eight House members split on the legislation, as they did when an earlier version passed the House in July. Democrats Benjamin L. Cardin, C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger and Steny H. Hoyer supported the bill, as did Republican Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest. Democrats Elijah E. Cummings, Chris Van Hollen and Albert R. Wynn voted against it, as did Republican Roscoe G. Bartlett.

Cardin, who is running for the Democratic Senate nomination, said the bill could be better but that the compromise is an improvement over the original House version. He said he remains worried that the Bush administration could abuse the power granted by the law.

"It's important for those tools to be available, [and] it's also important to have proper oversight," said Cardin. "I have some concerns about this administration, but I think it's appropriate for the Congress to pass the necessary tools."

Allan Lichtman, another Democrat competing to fill the seat of retiring Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, criticized Cardin for breaking with the majority of his party.

"This is too important to the American people to rush through a flawed bill to meet some deadline that we have the ability to extend," Lichtman, an American University professor, said in a statement.

Bartlett, a frequent critic of the legislation, said the compromise version offers the government overly generous powers to intrude on the private lives of citizens and lacks adequate checks and balances.

"I refuse to eradicate the constitutional protections that safeguard Americans' civil liberties," said Bartlett, who represents Western Maryland.

Richard B. Schmitt writes for the Los Angeles Times. Sun reporter Gwyneth K. Shaw contributed to this article.

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