WASHINGTON – Legislators are back on track to pass an anti-terror bill after negotiations between the Bush administration and Senate leaders briefly derailed Tuesday over the final language and shape of the bill.
A spokesman for Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Wednesday that agreement was reached on several issues and the final bill should be completed "in the next day or so."
Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., said he expects the anti-terrorism bill and a bill to enhance enforcement of money laundering laws to come to the floor simultaneously next week.
Attorney General John Ashcroft asked Congress for authority to investigate and detain individuals suspected of involvement in terrorist activities. The 60-point bill, among other things, seeks to:
• Allow law enforcement authorities to obtain nationwide "pen register" and "trap and trace" orders that permit them to learn the incoming or outgoing phone numbers from a particular telephone.
• Extend the amount of time a court order can be used to conduct physical searches from 45 to 90 days and electronic surveillance from 90 days to one year.
• Place no limit on the length of time an alien suspected of terrorism can be detained without filing charges.
• Extend the roaming wire tap authority already in existence to multiple forms of communications, including the Internet.
• Allow authorities to use intelligence information from foreign sources that would have been illegally obtained under U.S. constitutional provisions.
The breakthrough came one day after negotiators stalemated on a provision that would set rules for law enforcement to share wiretap and grand jury information with intelligence agencies and executive branch authorities outside of law enforcement.
Other sticking points included the scope of the president's authority with respect to trade sanctions, law enforcement access to television cable subscriber records and to student records, a sensitive issue among universities.
Leahy press secretary David Carle said he would not specify what agreements were made or how the issues were resolved, but said "work is proceeding well, and everybody around the table is optimistic that a bill will be finished soon."
Carle said that two contentious issues — the length of alien detention and expansion of wiretap authority to Internet users — are both addressed in the bill. He did not say how long an alien can be detained, only that it was different from the House version which allows seven-day detentions.
One Senate aide said committee members are still trying to negotiate how long an alien can be held in detention.
Progress Despite Politics
Daschle said he was pleased that they were able to make progress in light of accusations that some parties to the agreement were politicizing the discussions.
"It was unfortunate that those accusations are made. Again, I think it's so inappropriate for anybody to be politicizing this at this point. And I'm not accusing anybody necessarily of politicizing, but we're — you know, I think as a result of the fact that people kept their cool and calmer heads prevailed, we got a lot done."
Daschle was referring to both Leahy's accusation that the White House reneged on some of the provisions late in the negotiations and Ashcroft's criticism that the Judiciary Committee was moving too slowly on the legislation.
Easier Passage in House
The House already reached agreement on legislation that would give Ashcroft much of what he requested, including enhanced surveillance of suspected terrorists, elimination of the statute of limitations for prosecuting terrorists, and greater ability for law enforcement to share information on suspected terrorist activity.
Some of the specifics include provisions giving the attorney general seven days to detain an alien before any charges are brought, tripling the number of border patrols in each state along the northern border, and allowing greater opportunity to share criminal information among the Justice Department, the State Department and the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
The bill also broadens the definition of terrorist acts and stiffens penalties for suspected terrorists, as well as those who conspire to commit terrorist acts.
In response to concerns about possible breaches of civil liberties, there is a provision in the bill that increases penalties from at least $1,000 to at least $10,000 in cases where civil liberties have been violated.
Early opposition to the bill spanned a broad coalition on both the left and right sides of the political spectrum who feared the new anti-terror legislation could hurt the very principles it is trying to protect, but most legislators said they were pleased with the negotiations.
Committee member Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., voted for the bill despite some misgivings.
"While I continue to disagree with the broad reach of many provisions in the legislation that go beyond addressing specific anti-terrorism needs, we were able to eliminate or severely limit the most egregious violations of Americans' civil liberties that were contained in the original proposal," he said.
The House bill passed out of the committee Wednesday and was expected to reach the House floor in a matter of days.
Carle said that the bill will have to be negotiated between the chambers because whereas the House removed provisions that were objectionable to either side, Senate members negotiated solutions to virtually all issues addressed in the administration's plan.