In a case of legislative deja vu, Sen. Russell Feingold launched another lonely filibuster against the USA Patriot Act, but sponsors predicted enough support to overcome the objection and extend parts of the law set to expire March 10.
Feingold said protracted talks with the White House over the law's protections for civil liberties produced only a "fig leaf" to cover weaknesses that leave people vulnerable to government intrusion.
Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., said he had the 60 votes required to overcome Feingold's filibuster, as soon as this week. He agreed, though, that any revisions to a House-Senate accord blocked last year were "cosmetic.
"But sometimes cosmetics will make a beauty out of a beast and provide enough cover for senators to change their vote," Specter told reporters Wednesday.
Indeed, the filibuster seemed doomed. No Democrats were expected to join Feingold, according to officials of both parties. Several senior senators of his party have said they would vote for the bill, including Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and Richard Durbin of Illinois.
Still, Feingold said the new version provided only a modest new protection for civil liberties.
"What we are seeing is quite simply a capitulation to the intransigent and misleading rhetoric of a White House that sees any effort to protect civil liberties as a sign of weakness," Feingold said during a floor speech Wednesday that kicked off his latest filibuster.
To the contrary, says virtually every other senator, years of talks over the expiring 16 provisions of the terrorism-fighting law have produced tighter limits on government power when compared to the original version that was passed a few weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks.
"In an effort like this, no party ever gets everything that they want," said Sen. John Sununu, R-N.H., who sided with Feingold last year when Democrats and a handful of Republicans blocked a GOP House-Senate renewal of the provisions. If not renewed, the 16 provisions of the original Patriot Act expire March 10.
This year, Sununu and Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, led talks with the White House in recent weeks that produced the compromise now being considered on the Senate floor.
Sununu and Craig argue that the new compromise makes several improvements to the law's civil liberties protections over previous versions.
For example, recipients of court-approved subpoenas for information in terrorist investigations would have the right to challenge a requirement that they refrain from telling anyone. Another new protection would remove a requirement that an individual provide the FBI with the name of an attorney consulted about a National Security Letter, which is a demand for records issued by administrators.
A third improvement, supporters say, makes clear that most libraries are not subject to National Security Letter demands for information about suspected terrorists.
But Feingold said the new deal only makes one, modest, improvement over the House-Senate compromise and current law: The deal makes clear that there would be judicial review of "gag orders" issued with court-ordered subpoenas for information, but sets several conditions. Under one, the review can only take place after a year and requires the recipient of the order to prove that the government has acted in bad faith, Feingold said.
"That is a virtually impossible standard to meet," he said. "What we have here is the illusion of judicial review."
Senior members of his party, including Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, Richard Durbin of Illinois and Dianne Feinstein of California, have said they will vote for the new deal.