By Charles Babington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 15, 2005
The House voted 251 to 174 yesterday to renew the USA Patriot Act, setting up a confrontation over the revised anti-terrorism measure with a group of Democratic and Republican senators who say it would not go far enough to protect civil liberties.
The Patriot Act, approved after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, made it easier for the FBI to conduct secret searches, monitor telephone calls and e-mails, and obtain bank records and other personal documents in connection with terrorism investigations.
Civil liberties groups say the proposed renewal would do too little to let targeted people challenge national security letters and types of subpoenas that give the FBI substantial latitude in deciding what records -- including those from libraries -- should be surrendered.
The White House and GOP leaders urged Republicans to support the president and extend the law, which is scheduled to expire Dec. 31. "Renewing the Patriot Act before it expires in December is literally a matter of life and death," said Rep. Ric Keller (R-Fla.). Forty-four Democrats joined 207 Republicans in voting to renew key provisions of the act, with some modifications, for four years. Eighteen Republicans, 155 Democrats and one independent voted against it.
Democrats voting yes included party Whip Steny H. Hoyer (Md.) and Rep. Jane Harman (Calif.), the top Democrat on the House intelligence committee. Harman said the bill is needed "to track communications by e-mail and Internet, including the use of Internet sites in libraries, and to prevent and disrupt plots against us."
President Bush hailed the vote, saying the act "is essential to fighting the war on terror and preventing our enemies from striking America again." However, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) said during the House debate: "We're not protecting ourselves, but we are endangering our liberties."
An unusual coalition of Democrats and moderate-to-conservative Republicans in the Senate opposes the bill. Members say they will support a filibuster, promised by Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.), intended to kill it through long debate. Stopping a filibuster would require 60 votes in the 100-member Senate, where Republicans hold 55 seats.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), who supports the bill, told reporters yesterday that he believes that "ultimately we're going to be successful." But top aides said the vote was too close to predict the final outcome.
Frist said he would not accept a "short-term extension" of the existing Patriot Act. But many Democrats and some Republicans want a one- or three-month renewal of the law to allow more time to negotiate the proposed four-year extension after Congress's winter recess. The first votes testing the filibuster are expected tomorrow.
The sharpest debate in both chambers has centered on proposed changes to provisions that allow investigators to demand business records, library logs and other items connected to suspects. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), who supports the bill, wrote a seven-page letter to colleagues rebutting claims that the revisions would do too little to protect innocent people from invasion of privacy. Investigators would have to show a special judge "a statement of facts" connecting the documents being sought with an ongoing investigation, he noted.
But some Republicans are unconvinced. The legislation does not spell out a targeted person's right to a "specific judicial review" of the "gag order" that is included in the records' search to ensure secrecy, Sen. John E. Sununu (N.H.) said yesterday. "There are a lot of Republicans and independents and Democrats who believe civil liberties should be protected as you extend the Patriot Act," he added.
Some Democrats have expressed fears that a vote against the Patriot Act extension may be used against them in next year's elections. They note that former senator Max Cleland (D-Ga.) was accused of being unpatriotic for voting against creation of the Homeland Security Department under guidelines opposed by labor unions. But Sununu said, "I don't believe this is a partisan issue" because so many Republicans oppose the Patriot Act legislation and dozens of Democrats support it.
The House-passed bill also includes millions of dollars to combat the manufacturing and use of methamphetamine, a drug that has hit rural communities especially hard. The law would limit consumers' purchases of cold medicines that include pseudoephedrine, a key ingredient of meth.
In Virginia's congressional delegation, all Republicans voted for the bill and all Democrats voted against it. In Maryland, those voting for the bill were Democrats Hoyer, Benjamin L. Cardin, C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger and Republican Wayne T. Gilchrest. Voting nay were Democrats Elijah E. Cummings, Chris Van Hollen and Albert R. Wynn and Republican Roscoe G. Bartlett.