WASHINGTON — The Senate today refused to reauthorize major portions of the
USA Patriot Act after critics complained they infringed too much on Americans’
privacy and liberty, dealing a huge defeat to the Bush administration and
In a crucial vote early today, the bill’s Senate supporters were not able to
get the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster by Sens. Russ Feingold, D-Wis.,
and Larry Craig, R-Idaho, and their allies. The final vote was 52-47.
President Bush, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and Republicans
congressional leaders had lobbied fiercely to make most of the expiring Patriot
Act provisions permanent.
They also supported new safeguards and expiration dates to the act’s two most
controversial parts: authorization for roving wiretaps, which allow
investigators to monitor multiple devices to keep a target from evading
detection by switching phones or computers; and secret warrants for books,
records and other items from businesses, hospitals and organizations such as
Feingold, Craig and other critics said those efforts weren’t enough, and have
called for the law to be extended in its present form so they can continue to
try to add more safeguards for civil liberties. But Bush, Senate Majority Leader
Bill Frist and House Speaker Dennis Hastert have said they won’t accept a
short-term extension of the law.
If a compromise is not reached, the 16 Patriot Act provisions expire on Dec.
31, but the expirations have enormous exceptions. Investigators will still be
able to use those powers to complete any investigation that began before the
expiration date and to initiate new investigations of any alleged crime that
began before Dec. 31, according to a provision in the original law. There are
ongoing investigations of every known terrorist group, including al-Qaida,
Hamas, Hezbollah, the Islamic Jihad and the Zarqawi group in Iraq, and all the
Patriot Act tools could continue to be used in those investigations.
Five Republicans voted against the reauthorization: Chuck Hagel of Nebraska,
Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, John Sununu of New Hampshire, Craig and Frist. Two
Democrats voted to extend the provisions: Sens. Tim Johnson of South Dakota and
Ben Nelson of Nebraska.
Frist, R-Tenn., changed his vote at the last moment after seeing the critics
would win. He decided to vote with the prevailing side so he could call for a
new vote at any time. He immediately objected to an offer of a short-term
extension from Democrats, saying the House wouldn’t approve it and the president
wouldn’t sign it.
“We have more to fear from terrorism than we do from this Patriot Act,” Frist
If the Patriot Act provisions expire, Republicans say they will place the
blame on Democrats in next year’s midterm elections. “In the war on terror, we
cannot afford to be without these vital tools for a single moment,” said White
House press secretary Scott McClellan. “The time for Democrats to stop standing
in the way has come.”
But the Patriot Act’s critics got a boost from a New York Times report
saying Bush authorized the National Security Agency to monitor the international
phone calls and international e-mails of hundreds — perhaps thousands — of
people inside the United States. Previously, the NSA typically limited its
domestic surveillance to foreign embassies and missions, and obtained court
orders for such investigations.
“I don’t want to hear again from the attorney general or anyone on this floor
that this government has shown it can be trusted to use the power we give it
with restraint and care,” said Feingold, the only senator to vote against the
Patriot Act in 2001.
“It is time to have some checks and balances in this country,” shouted Sen.
Patrick Leahy, ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee. “We are more
American for doing that.”
Most of the Patriot Act — which expanded the government’s surveillance and
prosecutorial powers against suspected terrorists, their associates and
financiers — was made permanent when Congress overwhelmingly passed it after the
Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington. Making the rest of
it permanent was a priority for both the Bush administration and Republican
leaders on Capitol Hill before Congress adjourns for the year.
The House on Dec. 14 passed a House-Senate compromise bill to renew the
expiring portions of the Patriot Act that supporters say added significant
safeguards to the law. Its Senate supporters say that compromise is the only
thing that has a chance to pass Congress before 2006.
“This is a defining moment. There are no more compromises to be made, no more
extensions of time. The bill is what it is,” said Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz.
The bill’s opponents say the original act was rushed into law, and Congress
should take more time now to make sure the rights of innocent Americans are
safeguarded before making the expiring provisions permanent.
“Those that would give up essential liberties in pursuit in a little
temporary security deserve neither liberty nor security,” said Sen. John Sununu,
R-N.H. They suggested a short extension so negotiations could continue, but the
Senate scrapped a Democratic-led effort to renew the Patriot Act for just three
months before the reauthorization vote began.
“Today, fair-minded senators stood firm in their commitment to the
Constitution and rejected the White House’s call to pass a faulty law,” said
Caroline Fredrickson, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s
Washington legislative office. “This was a victory for the privacy and liberty
of all Americans.”
On the Net:
Justice Department’s Web site on the USA Patriot Act: http://www.lifeandliberty.gov/
ACLU’s Patriot Act Web site: http://action.aclu.org/reformthepatriotact/