Their Own Patriot Act

By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Tuesday, December 20, 2005

It's not too much to say that liberty and democracy were triumphant last week. Remarkably, the willingness of four senators to cross party lines was the key to this victory.

The good news came when the Senate voted to stall the renewal of the USA Patriot Act, which granted extraordinary powers to law enforcement after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Forty-six senators, including those four Republicans, refused to shut off debate on the bill because they believe that some of its provisions go too far in impinging upon civil liberties.

The rebels are not opposed to all of the Patriot Act's provisions; they acknowledge that the rise of terrorism requires new approaches to law enforcement. But they insist on preserving traditional American protections for individual rights. They think judges should be able to review the actions of the authorities, they want to avoid police fishing expeditions, and they want to protect privacy.

One of those rebels put the case plainly in last week's debate. "We should not be afraid of a judicial review or setting the appropriate standards of evidence," this senator declared. "We need to be mindful of Ben Franklin's words over 200 years ago: 'Those who would give up essential liberty in the pursuit of a little temporary security deserve neither liberty nor security.' " No, these are not the words of one of President Bush's ultra-liberal enemies. They were spoken by John Sununu, a proudly libertarian conservative Republican from New Hampshire. The other Republicans who voted with Sununu to force more deliberation on the Patriot Act share his libertarian streak: Larry Craig, Lisa Murkowski and Chuck Hagel. Not a liberal in the bunch. They were joined by 41 Democrats and one independent.

Last week's vote was not a sudden rebellion. Sununu, Craig and Murkowski have been working closely with Democratic Sens. Russ Feingold, Dick Durbin and Ken Salazar to craft a new version of the Patriot Act that would be tough but sensitive to the concerns of libertarians. Their work helped create a consensus bill that passed the Senate unanimously.

In an interview, Sununu said he had spent months trying to persuade administration officials that they could not wait until the act was about to expire, roll over Senate objections, then "throw something on the floor at the last minute and expect it to pass."

Feingold, as the only member of the Senate willing to stand up against the Patriot Act when it was first passed in 2001, deserves acclaim for bringing around so many of his colleagues. By backing Feingold, Pat Leahy, the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, and Harry Reid, the Senate Democratic leader, made it easier for others in their party to withstand the inevitable attacks from Republicans that supporting civil liberties made them soft on terrorism. But because Sununu made clear early on that he would not back away from his insistence that more rights be protected in the Patriot Act, he made it far easier for Feingold to attract wavering Democrats.

Remarkably -- but, alas, not surprisingly -- Bush not only attacked Reid but acted as if the old rhetoric from four years ago would work again. "The terrorists want to strike America again," Bush said yesterday. "And they hope to inflict even greater damage than they did on September the 11th. Congress has a responsibility to give our law enforcement and intelligence officials the tools they need to protect the American people. The senators who are filibustering the Patriot Act must stop their delaying tactics, and the Senate must vote to reauthorize the Patriot Act."

Such scare tactics once petrified Democrats. This time, they are protected by the defensive line of Sununu, Craig, Murkowski and Hagel.

In the interview this weekend, Sununu said he hoped that Bush would realize that the dynamics of this debate have changed since the days immediately after Sept. 11. "We've had four years," he said. "There are specific aspects of the law we didn't have time to consider in depth between September 11 and the passage of the Patriot Act. We've taken a look at these areas in a more deliberative way."

Bush said yesterday that "it is inexcusable for the United States Senate to let this Patriot Act expire." Sununu quickly replied with his proposal to extend the act for three months to give the various sides time to work out their differences.

Imagine: a Republican insisting that the president negotiate seriously with Congress. Because Sununu, Feingold and their allies stood up, the checks and balances we regularly praise as part of our constitutional system are, once again, alive and well. It's an act one would expect from patriots.

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