WASHINGTON — The House voted to extend indefinitely the anti-terrorist USA Patriot Act, while limiting to 10 years two provisions of the law that have become linchpins in the ongoing congressional debate: allowing federal agents to use roving wiretaps and to search library and medical records.
By a 257-171 margin, lawmakers who earlier yesterday had watched reports of attempted terrorist bombings in London, agreed to renew key provisions of the Patriot Act that were set to expire at the end of this year.
Forty-three Democrats joined 214 Republicans in passing the bill, H.R. 3199, which dropped 14 of 16 expiration dates on provisions initially drafted into the law shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Hours earlier, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved its own general extension of the law, but it called for Congress to re-examine the wiretap and library provisions after another four-year time period. The full Senate likely will vote on the bill, S. 1389, this fall, before the competing measures are reconciled in a conference committee.
President Bush cheered the House vote.
“The Patriot Act is a key part of our efforts to combat terrorism and protect the American people, and the Congress needs to send me a bill soon that renews the act without weakening our ability to fight terror,” Bush said in a statement released by the White House.
Despite more than nine hours of passionate debate, the House nearly one-upped the Senate in a surprise revolt at the conclusion of its deliberations. Nine Republicans broke ranks and voted with a united Democratic bloc on a last-ditch effort to make all 16 of the Patriot Act’s most sensitive provisions subject to an additional four-year “sunset” period.
“It is not a Republican vote; it is not a Democrat vote,” said one of the rogue Republicans, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of California. Instead, he cast it as an attempt to adhere to the limited government envisioned by the Founding Fathers.
House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas, the No. 2 Republican in the House, shook his head in disgust — while House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., came to the floor and cast a rare vote of his own — as a designated 15-minute voting period on the Democratic proposal ended in a 205-205 tie. Late-arriving members continued to vote, eventually defeating it by a margin of 218-209.
“Good oversight is done by congressional leadership, not by sunsets,” said Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., who shepherded the bill through the chamber as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.
The roving wiretap provision, Section 206, allows investigators to obtain warrants to intercept a suspect’s phone conversations or Internet traffic without limiting it to a specific phone or identifying the suspect. The records provision, Section 215, authorizes federal officials to obtain “tangible items” such as business, library and medical records.
Advocates argued that such powers already exist in criminal investigations so they should be expressly continued for terrorism investigations. They also cited safeguards in the bill, such as a requirement that a judge approve the records search.
One amendment, passed 402-26, would require the FBI director to personally approve any request for library or bookstore records. Another successful amendment calls for a 20-year jail term for an attack against a rail or mass-transit vehicle; a 30-year sentence if the vehicle carries nuclear material; and life imprisonment — with the possibility of the death penalty — if anyone is killed in such an attack.
Critics heralded the bulk of the existing law, but said the sunsets were wisely inserted amid the inflamed passions following the Sept. 11 attacks, and should be retained to assess the long-term impact of the law.
“Periodically revisiting the Patriot Act is a good thing,” said Rep. Martin Meehan, D-Mass. “The Patriot Act was an effort to answer the most difficult question a democracy faces: How much freedom are we willing to give up to feel safe?”