Within hours of a second attack on the London transit system, lawmakers in the House and Senate pushed ahead yesterday with starkly different bills to extend the controversial USA Patriot Act anti-terrorism law.
Votes by the House and a Senate committee set the stage for sharp debate on Capitol Hill over how far Congress should go in limiting the powers given the government by the law, which was passed six weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks but has since come under fire from civil liberties advocates and some elected officials.
After a day-long debate, the House voted 257 to 171 last night to extend or make permanent the most controversial provisions of the law while adding a handful of new restrictions on the FBI. Forty-three Democrats joined 214 Republicans in approving the Patriot renewal bill. Other proposals for sharper limits were rejected.
Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), the bill's author and chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said Americans are safer today because of the antiterrorism law. "The Patriot Act has proven itself over the past three and a half years as an invaluable tool against terrorists while remaining true to our strong civil liberty protections," he said in a statement.
Earlier in the day, however, the Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously approved a bill that goes significantly further in modifying the Patriot Act. It would require greater oversight of the Justice Department and would place new restrictions on secret searches and surveillance in terrorism probes.
The dueling proposals are part of a long debate over the act, which includes 16 provisions set to expire at the end of this year unless renewed by Congress. President Bush and his aides have repeatedly urged lawmakers to make the law permanent, arguing that its provisions have helped deter terrorist strikes.
In a statement last night, Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales said the House vote would give law enforcement officials "critical tools" to combat terrorism and said he hoped for Senate renewal of the law.
The Senate Judiciary Committee measure, sponsored by Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), was a setback for the administration and was portrayed by Senate aides as the version likely to pass muster on the floor.
A separate bill approved by the Senate intelligence committee in June would make all provisions of the law permanent and give the FBI additional power to issue subpoenas without the approval of a judge. Whatever the Senate passes will have to be reconciled with the House version approved yesterday.
Although 16 provisions of the Patriot Act are set to expire, most of the congressional debate in recent weeks has focused on a few controversial sections. They include one allowing the FBI to seize records from financial companies, libraries, doctors' offices and other businesses in terrorism investigations, and another that permits "roving wiretaps" that apply to a person rather than a particular telephone.
House Republicans pointed to the attacks in London yesterday and on July 7 as evidence of the need to reauthorize the Patriot Act with relatively few modifications. While the law has "helped avert additional attacks on our soil, the threat has not abated," Sensenbrenner said.
Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) said in a statement issued before last night's vote: "We can never forget -- and indeed, the news never lets us forget -- the threats we face in this dangerous world. . . . With this vote, all members, from both sides of the aisle, will have an opportunity to show the American people how seriously they take the ongoing threat of terrorism and how they intend to combat it."
The comments from GOP leaders, combined with rejection of amendments sponsored by Democrats, provoked howls from Democrats who said they support most of the law but are concerned about the civil liberties implications of a few provisions.
"We have a duty to protect the American people from terrorism, but also to protect law-abiding American citizens from unaccountable and unchallengeable government power over their personal lives, their personal records and their thoughts," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who said she hopes "an improved bill" will come back to the House after negotiations with the Senate.
The House bill includes a requirement that the FBI director approve any request for records from a library or bookstore. It would make 14 of the expiring provisions permanent and extend two others -- pertaining to records seizures and roving wiretaps -- for a decade.
The Senate Judiciary Committee bill, by contrast, would extend the same two provisions for four years and includes tighter requirements for seizing records. It would allow people to challenge warrants approved by a secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and would require that subjects of secret searches be notified within seven days unless an extension is approved by a judge.
"In retaining the expanded powers of the Patriot Act, this bill also maintains and improves the constitutional safeguards that are indispensable to our democracy," said Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), a committee member.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which has led criticism of the Patriot Act, called the bill "a step in the right direction" but said that "it still fails to protect the Bill of Rights."
ACLU officials said the revised Senate committee bill still would give the government too much leeway in obtaining warrants from the secret intelligence court and would allow the FBI to avoid notifying targets of secret searches indefinitely.