Patriot Act Is Stalled

Senate unable to vote to halt debate, extend anti-terror measure

December 17, 2005|By RICHARD B. SCHMITT | RICHARD B. SCHMITT,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- The Senate blocked legislation to renew the USA Patriot Act yesterday, delivering a significant rebuff to President Bush that reflected rising concern over his treatment of civil liberties and privacy rights in the war on terrorism.

A Republican bid to end debate and consider a bill that the House had easily approved earlier this week fell seven votes short and left the fate of the anti-terror law unclear as Congress prepared to recess. Key provisions of the statute expire Dec. 31.

It was the second policy reversal on the terror front in as many days for Bush, who on Thursday bowed to congressional pressure and agreed to accept a formal ban on cruel or inhumane treatment of U.S. prisoners. The administration had previously said that such a restriction might undermine interrogation efforts.

And it coincided with a published report in yesterday's New York Times that Bush authorized eavesdropping on hundreds of Americans after the Sept. 11 attacks without court approval.

The report triggered bipartisan criticism that spilled over into the debate on the Patriot Act and might have hardened opposition to renewing the law.

The report described a highly classified program of monitoring communications between American citizens and people overseas who were suspected of having ties to terrorist networks. The plan, run by the National Security Agency, was approved by Bush after the Sept. 11 attacks, but it is drawing criticism because intelligence agencies ordinarily must gain permission from special courts before they can listen in on conversations of U.S. citizens, domestically or overseas.

Four Republicans broke ranks as the 53-46 Senate vote fell well short of the 60 needed to cut off debate and block a filibuster of the measure. Majority Leader Bill Frist subsequently changed his vote to oppose ending debate in a maneuver that gives him the right to call for a second vote, making the official vote 52-47.

Critics of the House-backed bill, which would extend 16 expiring provisions of the Patriot Act, say it doesn't include adequate safeguards for civil liberties. They have proposed a three-month extension of the law in its current form to work out differences. But supporters of the law said they might prefer to have it expire than subject it to future tinkering.

Frist indicated he would try to corral more votes over the weekend before Congress adjourns for the holiday. "The debate will continue on this very important bill," he said. "We will not see a short-term extension."

The outcome was a big setback to Bush and the Justice Department. The Patriot Act has become the administration's signature weapon in waging the fight against terrorism on the battlefield and in the courts, and it has enjoyed the support of most Americans. Many of the provisions have been sparingly used, and the changes being debated in some instances amounted to no more than fine-tuning.

Bush administration officials decried the outcome and said some members of Congress were putting the nation at risk.

"These provisions of the USA Patriot Act are essential to our efforts in the war on terrorism, and their loss will damage our ability to prevent terrorist attacks," Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales said. "Our nation cannot afford to let these important counterterrorism tools lapse."

Scott McClellan, the White House spokesman, said Bush wouldn't sign a plan introduced by a bipartisan group Monday to extend the current Patriot Act for three months while a compromise is worked out. "The president calls on the leaders of both parties to start putting the safety of the American people above politics," he said.

But the vote reflects what lawmakers see as a deepening credibility gap with the administration.

"The scope of concern has been broadened," said James Dempsey, executive director of the Center for Democracy and Technology, a Washington advocacy group and critic of the Patriot Act.

Recent disclosures "are telling members of Congress that they need to be a lot less trusting of the administration and a lot more careful," he said.

Among the expiring provisions of the law are ones that make permanent the ability of intelligence agents and prosecutors to share information, which officials say has been critical in rooting out and prosecuting terror suspects.

Richard B. Schmitt writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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