By Charles Babington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 21, 2005
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) could barely conceal his anger.
"The Patriot Act expires on December 31, but the terrorist threat does not," he told reporters at the Capitol yesterday. "Those on the Senate floor who are filibustering the Patriot Act are killing the Patriot Act."
There was just one problem. Well, four problems, actually. Four of the 46 senators using the delaying tactic to thwart the USA Patriot Act renewal are members of Frist's party. It is a pesky, irritating fact for Republicans who are eager to portray the impasse as Democratic obstructionism, and a ready-made rejoinder for Democrats expecting campaign attacks on the issue in 2006 and 2008.
The four Republican rebels -- Larry E. Craig (Idaho), Chuck Hagel (Neb.), John E. Sununu (N.H.) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) -- have joined all but two Senate Democrats in arguing that more civil liberties safeguards need to be added to the proposed renewal of the Patriot Act. The law makes it easier for FBI agents to monitor phone calls, search homes and obtain business records of terrorism suspects. The four stand calmly at the center of a political storm that soon will determine whether the law, enacted soon after the 2001 terrorist attacks, is renewed in a modified form or allowed to expire in 11 days.
The House passed the Patriot Act renewal Dec. 14, but two days later the four Republicans joined most Democrats in the Senate in blocking action on the bill.
The four Republicans' concerns about the proposed Patriot Act renewal are basically the same as those of most Senate Democrats. They say the bill is slanted too heavily in the government's favor when it comes to letting targeted people challenge national security letters and special subpoenas that give the FBI substantial latitude in deciding what records should be surrendered. The targeted people should have a greater ability to challenge such subpoenas and require the government to show why it thinks the items being sought are connected to possible terrorism, the Republicans contend.
Their Republican colleagues try to look the other way, but Democrats are delighted to have some bipartisan cover. "In a full-court press by the White House to demonize Democrats, it's great to see we've got at least four Republican profiles in courage," said Jim Manley, spokesman for Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.).
It would be easier for GOP leaders to shrug off the mini-rebellion if it came from the well-known moderates of Maine and Rhode Island who often defy the party on fiscal and social issues. Instead, the four could star in a "Big Tent" ad proclaiming the Republican Party's diversity. They include a dyed-in-the-wool conservative (Craig), a rising star and presidential aspirant (Hagel), and two second-generation Republican achievers (Murkowski and Sununu).
For this week, at least, the most striking thing they have in common is an unshaken resolve to oppose the law's proposed renewal despite heated appeals by President Bush. "The senators who are filibustering the Patriot Act must stop their delaying tactics," Bush said Monday. The White House said he will not sign a temporary extension of the existing law, a plan pushed by Democrats who want to allow House-Senate negotiators to resume talks in hopes of a four-year renewal.
Asked about the president's remarks yesterday, Murkowski smiled and said softly, "I think the responsible thing to do at this point is to move forward with a three-month extension" of the current law. Murkowski, who inherited her seat from her father, said she has received angry phone calls and e-mails from non-Alaskans. "But I've got to listen to my constituents first," she said, and they have been "very supportive."
White House officials, she said, "have left me alone," as have most fellow GOP senators. "I have not had people hanging around me asking me if I've changed my mind," she said.
Hagel appears equally sanguine. "I took an oath of office to the Constitution, I didn't take an oath of office to my party or my president," he recently told reporters.
Sununu, whose father was a New Hampshire governor and White House chief of staff to George H.W. Bush, took issue with Bush's ultimatum. "How can the president justify vetoing the [temporary] extension?" Sununu said. "That suggests that he thinks the country is better off without any Patriot Act provisions in place than with a three-month extension. And that makes no sense at all."
Craig is a longtime favorite of the National Rifle Association. Like his three comrades, he said he is comfortable with his stand, even in light of Bush's comments. "Obviously the president by his actions has ratcheted it up a bit," Craig said yesterday. "And there's nothing wrong with that."
His constituents are with him, Craig said. "The beauty of Westerners is that we have a healthy distrust of our government," he said, adding that gun owners are particularly leery of laws that give federal agents greater powers to secretly search offices and homes. "Whether they are business records or they are gun dealers' records or whatever, they are records that can be gained" under the law, Craig said.
Such comments are highly inconvenient to Republican strategists eager to tag Democrats as being unpatriotic for their opposition to the House-approved renewal of the Patriot Act.
"It's wrong to put politics before national security," Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman said in an interview yesterday, as he visited the Capitol to seek a break in the legislative logjam. Asked about the four Republicans opposing him, Mehlman said: "Obviously I don't agree with them on this issue. I think that they're wrong substantively. But the Democrat near unanimity is what's causing this filibuster."
Sununu disagreed. "I don't believe this is a partisan issue," he said.